‘Low-value’ construction projects delayed approval process, roll-out of federal infrastructure dollars, internal documents say
By Jordan Press, The Canadian PressFinancing Infrastructure
OTTAWA—A large number of small construction transit and water system projects funded through the first phase of the Liberal government’s infrastructure program bogged down the approval process and delayed construction and spending, newly released documents show.
An internal analysis obtained by The Canadian Press under the access-to-information law says almost one-third of the projects Infrastructure Canada financed needed less than $100,000 in government support, but required the same detailed reviews as much bigger projects.
The high number of what officials called “low value projects” created a bigger workload for officials relative to overall funding, reads a briefing note outlining lessons learned from the first phase of the Liberals’ program.
Problems with provinces and territories recommending projects for federal funding are also listed among the many reasons as to why things didn’t move as quickly as planned.
In the end, getting projects approved in time for the 2016 and 2017 construction seasons “proved difficult,” officials wrote in the March 2018 briefing note to the top official at Infrastructure Canada.
The government has been criticized for the slower-than-anticipated pace of infrastructure dollars leaving the federal treasury. The parliamentary budget office has questioned whether the government’s expected economic benefits will materialize as a result of delays in spending and rising interest rates.
The Liberals argue tracking federal spending can be misleading because funds only flow once receipts are filed, which causes a lag between when work occurs and money is paid out.
A spokeswoman says Infrastructure Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne is able to approve projects worth up to $50 million, putting the vast majority of projects under the minister’s authority and reducing timelines for approvals.
“Infrastructure Canada’s funding programs are designed to be flexible enough to support the evolving needs of our provincial and territorial partners,” Ann-Clara Vaillancourt said.
She said programs also avoid “undue administrative burdens” on small-scale projects, such as exempting some projects worth less than $10 million from being tested for its potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Planned federal spending on new roads, bridges, rail projects and water systems has risen to $186-billion over 12 years with provinces, territories and cities are expected to put up varying portions of project costs.
The first part of the Liberals’ infrastructure program involved 32 departments handing out $14.4 billion. Infrastructure Canada’s share, about $5.4 billion, targeted repair projects for crumbling transit and water systems that could be done quickly.
Related: Some provinces creating challenges for infrastructure projects: Trudeau
At some point early in the process — the exact timing is not listed in the briefing note — the government began granting extensions as it became clear provinces and territories were going to miss the two-year deadline for the work to be completed.
For transit projects in particular, officials said, many cities forecasted work would wrap in March 2019 — and then experienced delays.
Work was also hampered by natural disasters like forest fires and flooding. Short construction seasons contributed further to the delays.
Projects in the North and in First Nations communities also proved challenging given limited capacity and weather-related delays.
In December 2017, the Liberals granted a blanket extension to March 2020, two years beyond what was planned. It means construction in some cities will continue through the federal election this fall.
Conservative infrastructure critic Matt Jeneroux said the briefing note shows the Liberals fumbled their program by underestimating the number of project applications. The briefing note, he said, gives “several excuses why projects are not getting done, but not solutions.”
“The fact that Justin Trudeau is into the fourth year of his mandate and is still having these issues gives me zero confidence they will be fixed,” Jeneroux said.
NDP infrastructure critic Brigitte Sansoucy said her party is concerned the Liberals haven’t learned their lesson heading into the second, and more lucrative, section of infrastructure program funding.
She said the document shows the government is blaming external issues for spending and construction delays.
“It’s exasperating to see the growing need for more and better infrastructure in municipalities of all sizes across the country not being met,” Sansoucy said.