Is your infrastructure project on the map? Liberals face hurdles with transparency tool
By Jordan Press, The Canadian PressInfrastructure
OTTAWA—An online map laying out billions in infrastructure spending approved by the federal Liberals has yet to provide the full scope of funding towards new and upgraded bridges, roads and transit systems.
A briefing note to the top official at Infrastructure Canada late last year outlined the challenges of creating a mapping tool for all federally funded projects aimed at addressing transparency concerns over exactly where billions in promised money was going.
Federal infrastructure spending data goes back 16 years, but officials identified multiple potholes that have prevented them from meeting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s request for an online map to chart all of Ottawa’s infrastructure spending.
There was no way to link some funding to specific projects because cities didn’t need to report how they used the $10.4 billion transferred annually to them through a GST rebate, nor did they have to use the rebate solely for infrastructure projects, for example.
A similar hurdle existed for cash delivered directly to cities through transfers like the federal gas tax, the briefing note said.
A spokeswoman for Infrastructure Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said the government is working with other departments overseeing the funding to add their spending data to the transparency tool.
Kate Monfette said the back-end data set which feeds into the map is updated regularly to reflect newly-approved projects and the map will always change to reflect that.
“The goal of the project map is for us to share the maximum information available in one place,” she said.
“Our goal is to have a visual representation of all (infrastructure plan) investments that Canadians can see in one place and we continue to work toward that.”
The federal government’s infrastructure plan totals about $186.7 billion over the next decade, about half of which is funding the Liberals have budgeted since coming to office in late 2015.
The Liberals have been repeatedly forced to answer questions about the budgetary details of their infrastructure program. In March, Parliament’s spending watchdog criticized the government for an incomplete accounting of its funding for water and transit systems, among other construction projects.
Such criticisms were not entirely new: the parliamentary budget office raised concerns five years ago about how the previous Conservative government budgeted infrastructure money, leading to opposition cries that the Tories were playing a shell game with construction dollars.
Last February, Trudeau directed then- infrastructure minister Amarjeet Sohi to “develop a tool to map” projects funded through the Liberals’ spending program, the briefing note said. Getting the map online was also designed to address “concerns raised in the media about transparency and reporting,” reads the memo, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
The first phase of the infrastructure plan is to deliver $14.4 billion through 34 programs detailed in the Liberals’ first budget in 2016. The second phase will see $81.2 billion over the next decade through 24 new programs.
What officials ended up doing was attempting to put every project that falls under the Liberal infrastructure plan, including money set aside by the previous Conservative government, on to one single map.
More information has been added to the map since its launch earlier this year, but some of the data identified in the briefing note have yet to be included.
“The map remains a work in progress as we continue to add data from other departments delivering the (infrastructure plan) as well as that from challenges like the Smart Cities Challenge,” Monfette said.