Photo by Sean_Marshall via Flickr

U of T urban experts on federal budget: a key moment to reinvest in this next-generation infrastructure

Investment marks a pivotal shift toward preparing Canada for a future that will see an increased urban population, says Matthew Siemiatycki

With the federal budget released this week, many urban experts are happy that long-needed infrastructure projects – from transit upgrades to repairs at public housing facilities – will finally get the attention they deserve.

But with new money coming in to municipalities, Associate Professor  Matthew Siemiatycki of geography warns now is the time to plan and use evidence to choose the right projects, not allow politics to drive that selection. 

U of T’s Global Cities Institute  and its sister organization the World Council on City Data, both led by Professor Patricia McCarney, have been actively collecting data which can be used to compare Toronto to urban centres around the world.

McCarney spoke to U of T News writer Noreen Ahmed-Ullah about how standardized data gathered and analyzed by her and other experts at WCCD can actually help city officials better plan what infrastructure projects deserve the most dollars. 

You’ve talked often about the neglected infrastructure needs of the city. Are you happy the federal government has allocated money for these projects?
MS: The announcement in the budget of $11.9 billion of new money for infrastructure over 5 years represents an initial down payment on the vast need for spending on urban infrastructure across the country. 

The role of municipalities in providing infrastructure has risen over the years while they collect the smallest share of all tax dollars. So they are really facing a crunch. In the meantime, our infrastructure has become rundown. A lot of it was built in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s and so now it’s getting old. It needs to be updated, upgraded and just properly maintained. We’ve missed a generation of investments, both in the capital stock we have now and in expanding to meet the needs of the 21st century economy. This is a key moment to start reinvesting in this next-generation infrastructure. 

The federal government is identifying high level goals that they want to target for investment, including public transit, affordable housing and in green infrastructure. So those are the key three categories, and then infrastructure in Indigenous communities is also an area where we will see a high level of investment because there’s need in those areas as well. The federal government has tried to set broad parameters in terms of the target areas for spending. What the municipalities are looking for is more discretion in terms of how they use the money.

Can you point to projects that need immediate attention?
MS: There’s a critical need for maintenance. These are the unsexy projects, the infrastructure that is not necessarily seen but has been in place and supporting our society and economy for 50 years and now that needs to be upgraded. 

The first place we’re going to see investment is in these critical projects, upgrades to things like sewers, water mains, public transit and social housing facilities. For transit in Toronto, for example, the TTC needs a whole new subway signalling system than the one that’s been in place for a number of decades. 

It’s showing its age in terms of how frequently and reliably the trains can be run.  For affordable housing, right across the country, public housing has fallen into disrepair. School infrastructure is also in pretty rough shape. And there is an urgent need for investment in water, housing, education and social infrastructure in Indigenous communities. 

These are all the types of investments that are critically important, but we’ve been deferring for years. The backlogs on all of these infrastructure sectors are in the tens of billions of dollars. The budget announcement of $11.9 billion of new money to be spent on infrastructure over the next 5 years represents an initial funding envelope to make a quick start on the most immediate priorities. 

It is not nearly enough to meet the vast infrastructure needs of a country the size of Canada, but it’s a start. Ideally you’re going to start to see funding for the bigger, new infrastructure projects start to roll out in the coming years. 

What is your advice to cities like Toronto?
MS: For operation and maintenance, aim to fill the most pressing needs first. But for bigger newer projects, selection needs to be done based on careful evidence based decision-making. What we find is that when it comes to infrastructure, some of the time decision makers use great evidence to make decisions. 

And other times, decisions are much more ad hoc, much more politically motivated. Governments need to be consistent in using quality evidence to make sure that they’re picking the right projects because if they don’t, the risk is that the money is not well spent, it doesn’t deliver the desired economic, environmental or social benefits, and then the project costs add to the overall debt burden that has to be repaid. Worst of all, governments still have to operate and maintain the infrastructure that’s being built, even if it hasn’t delivered much public benefit. That can be a long time drag on government budgets and the economy.

How should cities determine the best projects? Look at data? Hold public hearings?
It’s both. It’s about engaging with stakeholders and the broader community, which is now a common feature of the decision-making process. This budget was broadly consultative. That’s a positive step. You have to engage communities.

Then, you have to be mixing community input with very careful studies of what the benefits of proposed projects are actually going to be. Infrastructure is a long-term investment. And if you get it wrong, the costs really multiply over time. You have the missed opportunity. You have the debt that you’ve now taken on, and you have the long-term operating and maintenance costs that start to crowd out money for other opportunities.    

I agree with the sectors that have been targeted for investment – transit, affordable housing, green infrastructure, infrastructure in Indigenous communities. Now what I’ll be looking to see is whether the actual specific projects being delivered are selected based on rigorous evidence. We need to make sure we’re picking the right projects and delivering them well. We need to become much more systematic in how we make decisions to ensure we’re making the right choices and picking projects that are going to deliver the best long-term benefits.

How can data like that generated by U of T-affiliated World Council on City Data (WCCD) help municipalities make decision on which projects to fund?
PM: We see our data as driving more evidence-based decision-making by leaders, and building transparency in these decisions. The data also informs citizens on performance in service delivery, together with outcomes from that investment. 

High caliber city data facilitates meaningful dialogue between all levels of government – a dialogue that is essential following this unprecedented investment in infrastructure. So for example, Toronto is largely considered by many of its inhabitants to be an inefficient city when it comes to transportation. But through WCCD’s data, we learn that 54 per cent of commuters are using other means to travel to work besides a personal vehicle. We trail Boston at 62 per cent and London at 74 per cent, but we’re not as bad as Los Angeles, where only 27 per cent of commuters are using alternative means of travel besides their cars. 

So how can Toronto get to the level of London, for example? Our data, which comes from the first international standard for sustainable cities, which we began developing at U of T in 2008—can help city officials and interested citizens easily compare cities to understand what exactly was implemented in London to get to that number. Moreover, the data will allow decision makers at all levels of government to speak to each other about targeting infrastructure investment in areas that need it most. 

Does this budget signal that Canada has become an urban nation?
Undeniably, Canada is already an urban nation – with approximately 83 per cent of our population living in cities – but this budget does signal a strong and clear investment in the future of our cities, not only the inhabitants, but the brick and mortar infrastructure that underpins a functioning city. With aging infrastructure across the country, this investment marks a pivotal shift by the Trudeau government toward preparing this country for a future that will see an increased urban population, ideally supported by smart, sustainable and resilient infrastructure. 

Photo above by Sean_Marshall via Flickr 

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