Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced new infrastructure funding from a familiar program during a speech to rural Ontario stakeholders Jan. 25.
The spending on municipal projects, he said, is part of a growing package that is laying the groundwork for a post-pandemic economic recovery.
Ford made the announcement during an online address delivered during the first day of the virtual Rural Ontario Municipal Association (ROMA) conference.
“I’m thrilled to announce right here at ROMA, we’re investing $200 million again this year in the Ontario Community Infrastructure Fund, or OCIF,” the premier said. “We recognize that municipalities need flexibility to support their own priority infrastructure needs. This funding will help 424 small rural and northern communities across Ontario with critical projects like building and repairing local roads and bridges, as well as water and wastewater infrastructure.”
A spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Infrastructure stated the allocation was new funding announced for 2021. The spending matches the amount allocated for OCIF spending in January 2020.
Ford said he has long been an advocate for better broadband service for rural Ontario and that is even more essential now.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us, having high–speed internet and reliable cell service is absolutely critical for our daily lives,” said Ford.
“In a post–pandemic world, we also see the opportunities that remote work, and more online access, can bring to rural communities and businesses. But to get there, we need to start investing today in that infrastructure.”
Last fall, the premier noted, the government committed to spending an additional $680 million by 2026 as part of its broadband and cellular plan, bringing its total spending to nearly $1 billion.
Recent broadband projects have included $71 million to improve broadband connectivity in eastern Ontario, $63.7 million towards a southwestern Ontario project and $10.9 million to improve broadband services in northern communities.
The premier noted he and his fellow premiers had obtained $19 billion from the federal government last year to support the operations of municipalities during the pandemic, and last month they had obtained additional funding “to help our municipal partners go into 2021 on stable footing. That was $695 million to ensure municipalities didn’t carry deficits into this year. We want to help you get back on your feet.”
But first, Ford said, Ontarians have to survive the pandemic.
“We’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel grow brighter as more vaccines arrive every day,” he said. “I’m pleased to report that phase one of our vaccine rollout plan is well underway. We’ve administered well over 200,000 vaccines to date. We now have the capacity to administer 20,000 vaccines a day. And we’re working to double that by February, and General (Rick) Hillier, and Dr. (Theresa) Tam and the task force have already started the vaccine rolling to rural northern and Indigenous communities.”
Ford was followed by Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) president Graydon Smith, mayor of the Town of Bracebridge, who suggested the federal funding pledged to support continuity in municipal services was welcome but would not be enough.
“We’ve secured substantial funding to cover 2020 costs, along with a down payment on 2021 costs,” said Smith. “They will be difficult to predict, but we do know that municipalities do not have the resources needed to weather this pandemic without assistance — additional federal and provincial support will be needed again in 2021.
“AMO will advocate for strategic investments and greater economic participation. Investment in conventional infrastructure alone will not be enough to lead a recovery.”
Follow the author on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.