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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Now is not the time to cut public infrastructure spending!

As anyone who has travelled any significant portion of the Trans Canada Highway knows, we have a significant infrastructure deficit in this country. Our national highway is a national disgrace. But Canada’s infrastructure is not just roads and bridges; it is buildings, sewer systems, waterlines and electrical transmission grids.

It is also our military which we call upon in times of crises, such as the recent massive quake in Haiti, to ensure the sovereignty of Canada, which is second only to Russia in size, and to meet our international obligations such as in Afghanistan.


The 2010 Winter Olympics has provided the impetus for the spending of provincial and federal tax dollars on new housing, including some for the homeless and low income, recreational facilities and transportation upgrades such as the RAV line and long needed improvements to the treacherous Sea to Sky highway.

But what happens when the 2010 Olympics are over? There are signs that both the provincial and federal levels of government are now prepared to significantly reduce the amount of money they spend annually on infrastructure.

That would be a mistake for many reasons. The first is that here in the province of British Columbia the average age of a skilled tradesperson is 55. If we are going to retain a skilled workforce then we need to ensure the apprentices that were hired during the last construction boom are still able to complete their apprenticeships.

A second reason is that the best time for governments to spend money on infrastructure is when the economy is in recession. If they do it during boom times they only serve to exaggerate rather than even out the boom and bust cycle of the construction industry. It also means taxpayers and private companies end up paying more for materials and labour if they are both doing the bulk of their construction during boom times. If government spends more during a recession, costs are lower and it means we as taxpayers get more built for our buck.

If government spends its infrastructure money strategically it can also serve as a great impetus for future economic growth. In 2009 the Government of Canada announced a $40 billion procurement for the construction of new naval and coastguard vessels. Such construction is long overdue as the last of our navy ships were built in the 1980s.
The problem is that because of this long naval famine British Columbia no longer has the kind of shipbuilding infrastructure we had in the 1970s. The last minute cancellation of the Polar 8 in the early 1990s led directly to the closure of a major shipyard in North Vancouver. Add to that the political games that have been played by both BC NDP and BC Liberal governments with regards to the construction of BC Ferries and it is a wonder that we still have a significant shipbuilding industry here in BC.

But the fact is that we do and in the 21st century the key ocean trading routes will not be between North America and Europe and they were for the last two hundred years, they will instead be between North America and Asia.

That means that as Canada’s gateway to the Pacific, British Columbia needs to have the ability to repair large merchant and naval vessels. That capability will only exist if BC gets the go ahead to build a significant portion of Canada’s new navy and coastguard fleet. The federal government, because of their historic capriciousness, should also be willing to put a significant investment into expanding the capabilities of the Esquimalt graving dock, which is the only publicly owned dry dock on the west coast of the Americas.

With an equitable portion of federal ship construction, private companies would then be in a position to also improve their own facilities. This in turn would enable them to get back to the business of building and repairing the BC Ferry fleet right here in British Columbia.

By once again having a thriving shipbuilding and repair industry it will also increase the pool of skilled tradespeople who are living on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland. This then becomes of critical importance when inevitably we hit the next construction boom.

It also means that Canada will not face the farcical situation of by the mid 21st century having the majority of its fleet stationed in the Pacific while most of the construction and repair facilities are located in eastern Canada.

The final reason for spending money on infrastructure is environmental. The better our national highway system the more efficiently goods can be shipped and the less fuel that is wasted. Similarly an electrical transmission grid that went across Canada rather than just south into the United States would allow utilities to shift power as electrical demand rises and falls during the course of the day across Canada’s five time zones.

An east west transmission grid would also make it much more viable for wind power and other green energy projects to make a significant contribution to meeting our nation’s energy needs. And when it comes to conservation, the upgrading or replacement of old public buildings so that they are now properly insulated ventilated and energy efficient would also result in tremendous energy savings.

So too of course does the upgrading of water and sewer systems so that less water is wasted to leakage and less energy is used and energy even generated from new sewage treatment facilities.

All this and more are reasons why Canada needs to keep spending money on infrastructure now when our economy is still struggling to recover and not when the next private sector construction boom hits.

Mike Geoghegan is a federally and provincially registered lobbyist who lives in Victoria BC. He can be reached via his website at www.bclobbyist.com

This column was also published at Vancouverite.com

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