Feds promise $15 billion for transit projects over the next 8 years

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Ontario Construction News staff writer

The federal government is promising cash-strapped cities $14.9 billion in permanent funding for their public-transit systems — though most of the money will not be available for several years.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the announcement last week.

“Investments will support major public transit projects like subway extensions, help electrify fleets with zero-emission vehicles,” Trudeau said during a virtual news conference.

“They will also be used to meet the growing demand for walkways and paths for cycling and help rural and remote communities deliver projects to meet their mobility challenges.”

About $6 billion will be available to municipalities initially for projects that are ready to go, according to the government, while the remainder will go into a $3-billion per year fund for projects starting in 2026-27.

Exactly what needs towns and cities will have over the long term remains uncertain as municipal leaders consider how their communities will be after the pandemic, including the extent to which working from home will replace many people’s traditional commutes.

“Permanent, long-term funding for public transit will mean new subway lines, light-rail transit and streetcars, electric buses, cycling paths and improved rural transit,” said Catherine McKenna, minister of infrastructure and communities.

“It will mean that Canadians can get around in faster, cleaner, and more affordable ways. And it will help drive us to net-zero emissions and ensure a more sustainable future for our kids.”

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, chair of a group of mayors from Canada’s largest cities and participated in Wednesday’s announcement, echoed that assessment in an interview with The Canadian Press.

“Until there’s mass vaccination, it will take some time for ridership to recover,” he said. “But even in the worst-case scenario, most of us are assuming transit ridership returning to normal within three to five years. And so these systems that we’re building will be here for generations to come.”

The money is intended for new systems and expansions but will not specifically help municipalities struggling to pay the costs of operating public-transit systems during the pandemic, when many buses and subways are largely empty.

While the federal government and provincial counterparts stepped up to help cover many of those shortfalls last year, Iveson said discussions about assistance this year remain ongoing.

“The federal government very much understands the need economically and as a matter of fairness to local governments who really aren’t in a position to run deficits in the same way,” he said.

“So we do need that backstop support. Provinces got there last year, and we’ll need to work with them to get there again for 2021.”

The task now: securing commitments from various provinces to pick up their parts of the tabs for individual projects.

Unlike previous infrastructure commitments, the new money will not be specifically divided up between provinces, but instead put into a pot that can be dipped into whenever a project is ready.

The federal government says it will work with provinces, territories and municipalities along with Indigenous communities and others to identify projects and other potential uses for the $3-billion annual fund.

Toronto Mayor John Tory as well as various environmental groups also chimed in with their support for the promised public-transit funds.

Conservative infrastructure critic Andrew Scheer, however, accused the Liberal government of failing to address the needs of Canadian municipalities and provinces due to delays in past infrastructure-spending promises.

The Liberal infrastructure program is awful, Scheer wrote on Twitter. “Just ask the (parliamentary budget officer), their own internal audits, and Statistics Canada. Justin Trudeau hopes you will be fooled by his promises for the future, when he cannot get the job done today.”

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