By Jordan Press, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA – A major effort is underway to collect the most detailed data yet on the state of the country’s roads, bridges, water pipes and transit systems.
Statistics Canada quietly launched a national survey late last month to get an unprecedented level of granular detail on the state of infrastructure at the provincial and municipal level.
Urban and rural municipalities will have until November to respond to the questionnaire, and Statistics Canada officials say they expect to have the first results ready by next summer.
Collecting the information is imperative for the Liberal government’s economic agenda.
It wants to ensure that $186.7 billion in planned federal infrastructure spending over the next 12 years targets large projects that drive growth regionally or nationally and not smaller, local projects with no widespread impact.
Statistics Canada plans to use the data from the survey, and expand the national information it currently collects about infrastructure value and spending to determine the effects on the economy, productivity and jobs and the government’s fiscal outlook.
The Liberals have set a series of goals for the spending, including boosting economic growth, lowering greenhouse gas emissions, making it easier to get around in Canada’s busiest cities, and reducing homelessness.
Pages of briefing notes and presentations obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act lay out how these efforts have taken shape in the last year, and outline the challenge in obtaining data commensurate with the overall size of the federal investment.
A briefing note for Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi for a Feb. 14 meeting says that achieving federal goals will depend on provinces, territories and cities putting forward projects for funding that meet the stated goals. The meeting was with Michael Barber, the “deliverology” expert hired to help the Liberals on their promise for evidence-based policy making.
Cities, provinces and territories own about 95 per cent of the public infrastructure in Canada and account for about 90 per cent of all public infrastructure spending in Canada. The Liberals have vowed to give as much flexibility to cities and provinces in how they use federal funds, causing a point of friction between national interests and local demands.
“Infrastructure is not an area of ‘shared’ jurisdiction like immigration; in this case, the government can influence by using its convening power and by enforcing its authority through program requirements,” the briefing note says.
“The latter can be challenging because it can leave provinces, territories and municipalities with little flexibility and risk unintended consequences.”
A month later, a group of deputy ministers met with the country’s chief statistician to map out ways to “fill some large infrastructure data gaps.”
The survey was not designed to be exhaustive, says an April 7 briefing note for a meeting between Infrastructure Canada’s deputy minister and the chief statistician said. Instead, it will capture a representative sample of municipalities as well as Indigenous communities.
Survey response rates on-reserve are typically low, but Statistics Canada has started outreach efforts to band councils and Indigenous organizations on the new survey.
The government has budgeted $1 million for the survey, although the documents suggest that figure will change. Brook Simpson, a spokesman for Sohi, said any additional costs will be absorbed by Infrastructure Canada’s operating budget.
Canadian governments are expected to spend as much as $750 billion over the next 10 years on infrastructure.
Simpson said the survey can lead to more informed decisions on infrastructure investments across the country.
“It will inform all levels of government when making strategic investment decisions in infrastructure, helping sustain the quality of life Canadians are accustomed to, as well as continuing to strengthen communities.”