As waters rise, Champagne offers fast track reviews for flood infrastructure projects
OTTAWA—Canada’s infrastructure minister is offering flood-ravaged communities in Quebec a fast-track for federal cash to mitigate the dangers of rising waters, hoping to entice requests from a province that has yet to apply for money from a unique fund set up specifically for the purpose.
The “disaster mitigation and adaptation fund” was set up two years ago to dole out $2 billion over a decade, hoping to help communities like those now facing flooding in Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick reduce the risks from high water, fires, and extreme weather.
The thinking was that every dollar spent on building infrastructure to divert floodwater, for example, would save countless more in reconstruction costs. A 2016 report from the parliamentary budget office predicted federal disaster-assistance payments, to help deal with damage, could hit $900 million next year.
Many of the communities facing flooding now also suffered floods in 2017.
A provision in the program allows the minister to approve projects in emergency situations and Francois-Philippe Champagne said April 23 he wants to do that to get work done before a construction season is lost.
“With spring coming in many communities across Canada, there’s a sense of anxiety because we know that what we don’t do this year may have an impact on the community next year,” Champagne said.
Champagne wouldn’t speculate about why some provinces or cities haven’t applied for funding in Quebec and New Brunswick, saying instead that he wants to make sure everyone who could use the funding is aware it exists.
“There is a sense of urgency in seeing … these sums of money, which were made available to communities, being used so that in places where we can make a difference, let’s make the difference and protect the communities and the people,” he said.
The Liberal party was elected in 2015 partly on a promise to spend massively on infrastructure; the government has been regularly criticized for failing to get money out the door and construction underway. Federal officials hoped to avoid that in the disaster-mitigation program, according to newly obtained documents.
In the lead up to the program’s launch in late 2017, Infrastructure Canada officials feared they would be forced to delay planned spending, warning in one briefing note that a “low number of projects” could start within a year of being approved.
They considered looking at how shovel-ready a project was in deciding which ones to recommend for approval and which would fall to the bottom of the pile.
The details are in a briefing note among almost 100 pages of documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the federal access-to-information law.
What the government envisioned was a program that would fund big projects, costing more than $20 million, and be national in scope.
What the Liberals got, according to documents, were proposals from departments for numerous smaller projects across provinces or regions — as opposed to a large project focused on “one particularly vulnerable area” — and a lack of agreement on what would make a project “national” in scope. Eligibility criteria had to be revised and terms redefined so money didn’t sit idle.
“Based on past experience managing infrastructure programs, project state of readiness at the time of approval should be an important consideration,” reads a briefing note prepared for a meeting of federal officials.
“Projects that are not ready or expected to start construction within a certain window could be considered but would receive a lower mark. They would be reconsidered in future intake processes.”
A spokesman for Champagne said a decision was made to focus on projects with construction start dates of 2019 or 2020 because of the high volume of responses received in the first intake for the program, which opened last May. The remainder were encouraged to apply in future rounds, said Pierre-Yves Bourque.
He said the announcements to date have been from that first batch of applications.
So far, the government has committed about $832.9 million for 20 projects. All but two are aimed at dealing with flooding but none is in Quebec or New Brunswick. All those approved to date will take years to complete, with the earliest ($22 million for dikes and monitoring equipment to head off flooding in Drumheller, Alta.) wrapping up in 2022 and the last in Toronto by the end of 2028, based on federal data.