Mayors pitch transit to win dollars in Liberals’ green-themed budget

OTTAWA — The mayors of Canada’s biggest cities are pressing the federal government for immediate money to address climate change, as well as a promise of predictable transit funding down the tracks.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau, who met with the mayors Thursday, has billed the coming federal budget as one with an environmental focus.

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, who chairs the big city mayors’ caucus of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, said that’s why the mayors are prioritizing budget requests that fit the environmental lens and match promises the Liberals made during the recent federal election.

The mayors are asking for help to fund zero-emission transit fleets and a top-up to the popular disaster mitigation and adaptation fund that helps municipalities deal with things like severe flooding.

In meetings with other architects of this year’s budget — and opposition MPs whose support is needed to pass a budget bill — mayors say they have come away with a belief the Liberals will honour a campaign promise to make transit funding permanent when current funding programs sunset near the end of the decade.

“I think they intend to follow through on that,” Iveson said.

“We really want to nail that down in the budget because that helps us turn back to a conversation about provinces.”

Funding from federal infrastructure programs, valued at more than $180 billion, can’t flow to cities until provinces officially green-light them for Ottawa’s approval. Speaking to the big city mayors on Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said “some challenges” had arisen concerning co-ordination with the provinces over the last few years, and he asked the group to lean on premiers.

The Liberals plan to force provinces to identify projects for long-term funding and submit lists by the end of 2021, or Ottawa will send the money directly to cities for their use. Discussion of changes to the annual $2-billion federal gas-tax program, which sends money directly to cities, will wait for another round of budget talks, but may take on more prominence if provinces continue to put up roadblocks, Iveson said.

“We really think it’s important that there be a consequence to not playing ball in Confederation,” Iveson said. “However, the lost opportunity in the meantime is an economic loss and a loss of a public benefit.”

During closed-door meetings with Trudeau and senior ministers, mayors heard promises of getting infrastructure money out the door faster to them, speedier delivery of housing programs targeting high-density rental projects, a possible new bucket of funds in this coming budget, and redirecting existing cash for priority projects like electric transit vehicles.

Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna, who met with mayors one-on-one this week and Thursday as a group, has a mandate to make transit funding permanent post-2027.

“It would bring predictability to our planning process because … these major projects take years and years to get a shovel in the ground,” said Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, whose city is in the early stages of planning an extension to its light-rail system.

Langley Mayor Jack Froese said Metro Vancouver mayors are hoping for money more quickly for zero-emission transit vehicles set to roll out this fall, while pushing for longer-term funding for a planned extension to the SkyTrain transit system, which connects B.C.’s Lower Mainland.

“Whether it’s Montreal or Toronto or Metro Vancouver, we all have a big ask,” Froese said in an interview.

“There’s only so much money to go around. We would like to impress upon the federal government that we have shovel-ready projects that are ready to go.”

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