Feds set up fast-track for infrastructure bank

OTTAWA — The federal infrastructure bank is many months away from opening its doors, but Liberals have given a group of civil servants the power to help fast-track approval of projects for private funding well in advance.

The officials are now on the verge of handing in their secret evaluations of the projects, along with any recommendations about how to use public funds to quickly pull in private dollars to pay for construction.

The government says the infrastructure bank advisory group has not sent any projects up the ladder for cabinet approval.

Rather, internal documents suggest the goal of the group is to avoid any delays in project approvals and show some early wins for the new bank, which has faced controversy and won’t be fully operational until the end of the year.

The Liberals hope that the bank can use $35 billion in public funds to pry three to four times as much in private investment to fund infrastructure projects around the country.

The Liberals asked the advisory group to review projects that could go to the new infrastructure bank, and provide options to cabinet for private funding “to ensure that no delays occur on near-term infrastructure projects,” the documents state.

“In cases where a project is sufficiently advanced to proceed prior to the establishment of the (infrastructure bank), the advisory group will provide recommendations…on options for federal support to leverage private sector investment,” read the terms of reference for the group, which The Canadian Press obtained under the Access to Information Act.

A spokesman for Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi said the group has not sent cabinet any financing recommendations. Any work will be transferred to bank officials once the agency is up and running, Brook Simpson said, including reviews of a high-profile transit project in Montreal.

The Liberals have also hired outside experts to review the business case for the 67-kilometre, electric-rail transit project in Montreal, known by its French acronym REM.

“The advisory group reviewed a number of projects to see if private capital investment would be possible. Among these was the REM project in Montreal,” Simpson said.

“The due diligence that the advisory group did on this project will be transferred to the bank once it is operational and the bank will then decide if an investment is appropriate in place of traditional grant funding.”

In June, the Liberals pledged $1.28 billion towards construction of the $6 billion project overseen by the provincial pension program, the Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the funding, he said REM would be eligible for private sector financing through the infrastructure bank. If that were to happen, it would free up some of the $1.28 billion for other provincial projects.

Speaking about the bureaucratic advisory group, Conservative infrastructure critic Dianne Watts said there was no need to race through due diligence on projects so the Liberals could show some early wins for the agency. She said any work should have waited for the bank to be operational and the governance structure in place.

NDP critic Nathan Cullen said the terms of reference for the advisory group underlines concerns that financing decisions won’t be transparent about the use of taxpayers dollars: “It’s our money, it’s our infrastructure and we’re going to be the last to know.”

In June, the Liberals were able to get parliamentary approval for the agency despite questions about the financial risk for taxpayers and how public dollars could be used to provide a loss buffer to private investors.

In early July, the Liberals named Janice Fukakusa, a former chief financial officer for Royal Bank, as the agency’s inaugural chairwoman.

Simpson said a CEO and the remaining board members will be appointed in the coming months, as well as the launch of staff recruitment for the agency’s offices in Toronto.

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