Sohi defends Liberal infrastructure plan, says 20,000 projects underway

OTTAWA _ The Liberals’ multibillion-dollar plan to spur the economy through work on the country’s roads, bridges, transit and water systems is rolling out as planned, Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi said Thursday as he defended the government’s strategy by outlining details of work to date.

Federal officials say 82 per cent of the $11.8 billion set aside in the Liberals’ first budget has been allocated to 28,000 projects. Approximately 20,000 projects, valued at $9.4 billion, are underway, based on reports from provinces and cities.

The details of how much the federal government has doled out for those projects will be known later this year after federal workers close the books on the recently completed fiscal year. Less clear is how much cities and provinces have spent to date on the various construction, upgrade and rehabilitation projects which the first phase of spending was supposed to fund.

Parliament’s budget watchdog in a report late last month said the government’s economic growth projections from the money had slipped as spending has been delayed, and warned economic gains could be wiped out by 2022 thanks to expected increases in interest rates.

Sohi argued that the spending he oversees has helped prod some economic growth in the short-term, but much of it won’t be realized for years to come.

“Infrastructure investments are about long-term opportunities. They act as a catalyst for economic growth,” he said.

“The LRT (light rail transit) system being built today may not create as much economic growth, but they enable people to move quicker, they enable people to get to work on time and get home on time, they improve our productivity and reduce congestion. So all those things act as a stimulus for economic opportunities and economic growth.”

As for the delays in spending, Sohi suggested they were natural. The program, he said “has been rolled out as we had anticipated and is being delivered as we’ve anticipated.”

Conservative infrastructure critic Michael Chong said the government was missing its growth targets because it wasn’t properly managing the program, nor spending the money according to schedule. He called the update on the infrastructure plan “more spin from the government.”

“Every month or so we seem to get another version of what’s going on. The fact remains that they’re not spending the money they committed to,” Chong said.

“They can talk about … the money is being spent at the provincial and municipal level and will be reimbursed at some future date, but the fact remains the federal government is not getting the money out the door that they committed to and this has real life, real-world implications.”

Sohi’s briefing was designed to let the government take stock of the work done to date on dozens of infrastructure programs that, together, total $186.7 billion over 12 years and are overseen by 14 federal departments and agencies.

Sohi said it makes sense to have more than a dozen federal organizations involved in distributing the money because the government wants to leverage their expertise, rather than duplicate efforts inside Infrastructure Canada.

The first phase of the infrastructure plan was to deliver $14.4 billion through 34 programs detailed in the Liberals’ first budget in 2016.

Sohi extended the deadline for finishing projects to 2020 after provinces, territories and cities said they would have a hard time completing work by now.

The second phase will see $81.2 billion over the next decade through 24 new programs, 13 of which have yet to launch. The Liberals are finalizing spending agreements with provinces that, once signed, will lock in the spending, Sohi said.

NDP infrastructure critic Brigitte Sansoucy said despite the numbers, the government has yet to provide specific infrastructure funding assigned to projects in the last two budgets.

“Like the (parliamentary budget officer) report pointed out, it really does seem like the Liberals don’t have a plan,” she said in a statement.

Sohi also said that the Liberals soon expect to announce the first permanent CEO of the Canada Infrastructure Bank, a new federal agency created to finance revenue-generating projects like subway lines that have private sector backers. He said there are a number of projects that the agency is reviewing, but details are not being made public for the moment.