Dole out leftover building money: minister

Amarjeet Sohi
Infrastructure and Communities Minister Amarjeet Sohi leaves an event in Ottawa, Tuesday April 5, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA – The federal government wants to see billions in previously promised, but yet unspent, federal infrastructure money allocated to projects within the next three years, says Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi.

About $8.7 billion remains from the provincial and territorial stream of the New Building Canada Fund. The Liberals have vowed to speed up the federal approval process for money under this marquee infrastructure fund unveiled by the previous Conservative government in 2014.

“Our goal is to expedite that and ensure that we allocate that money within a very short, reasonable amount of time,” Sohi said in an interview Wednesday.

Sohi said that as quickly as each province submits a list of projects they see as priorities for funding, the government “will start reviewing them and we will start approving those projects.”

Sohi said the government isn’t setting deadlines for submissions, unlike an ultimatum delivered to provinces earlier this year about the older Building Canada Fund. In that instance, the Liberals gave provinces until March 31 to allocate about $700 million left unspent over the last nine years to projects.

In the end, $1 million was left unaccounted for and the government dropped the money into the gas tax fund.

The Liberals have already waived the requirement for proponents to explore the option of having a private company partner on a project to speed up approvals, one of 10 suggestions Sohi’s officials gave him to expedite spending the New Building Canada Fund.

But there are still other hurdles in the way of getting the money out the door quickly, according to internal documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act. Among the obstacles are requirements for aboriginal consultations, environmental assessments and other regulatory processes.

The leftover cash is separate from the money the government pledged in the budget as part of a campaign promise to double infrastructure spending over the next 10 years to bring the overall federal investment to $120 billion.

The first two years of the new program includes $6.6 billion in new cash for provinces and cities, not including money promised to First Nations infrastructure or to universities. It’s the first of a two-phase approach to the infrastructure promise the Liberals made during the election.

The government is negotiating funding agreements with provinces and territories to determine how the money will flow to municipalities. Cities have asked for grants that would allow them to spend on the projects they wish without the need to seek approvals from federal bureaucrats.

Sohi didn’t go into details of how the money will flow, but said cities will be able to use the money promised for this year and next to repair existing infrastructure, cover planning costs for large-scale projects that could be funded in the second phase of the Liberal infrastructure plan, or even fund new projects that are shovel-ready.

“We will do everything in our control to ensure that there’s enough flexibility and there’s enough transparency in the system and enough accountability as well to ensure that we are actually achieving the outcomes that we want to achieve, which is to bring our infrastructure into a state of good repair,” he said.

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