The biggest investment the federal government infrastructure program must make is in a rare political commodity: trust.
In January, the federal government announced a huge stimulus package designed to keep Canadians working:
• $4 billion, available over two years, for municipal projects;
• $3 billion for colleges and universities;
• $500 million for green infrastructure;
• $500 million for recreation infrastructure.
In April, the provincial government followed with a less aggressive package. But it still held promise as a tool to prime the economic pump:
• $7.2 billion in total capital spending;
• $300 million for municipal projects (a decrease of $100 million).
But little of that money has been spent, from either government source. Communities have begun to wonder just what hoops they’ll have to jump through to get Canadians working.
And, increasingly, jobs are an issue. New figures put Alberta’s unemployment at six per cent, almost a full percentage point higher than March. That is not good news as we head into the warmer, more active months. And there are suggestions that the worst is not over — in the United States, another 539,000 jobs disappeared last month. And Alberta’s resource-based economy is linked inextricably to the American market.
Jobs should always be the issue. “In terms of recessions, employment is the last thing to be hit and it’s also the slowest to recover,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said last week of national employment numbers. “We don’t want to declare victory yet, but the very fact we’re seeing some positive numbers in the labour market is a very good sign.”
That is apparently not the case in Alberta.
So where is the infrastructure money that could guarantee that labour market turnaround? Is it being withheld while forecasters imagine a brighter future?
That doesn’t solve today’s problems.
Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty promised the money would flow quickly after the January budget, because the nation’s economy needed a boost immediately.
“This isn’t business as usual. This is an urgent, extraordinary situation,’’ he said.
But few projects have received funds, particularly in this region.
On Friday, Red Deer College received $4.5 million in funding for campus renovations. They money was delivered in equal parts by the federal and provincial governments. The work was already underway.
However, several other projects remain in limbo.
Red Deer’s proposed ring road and north-end bridge top the list (the first phase, including bridge, is estimated at $129 million). Next would be a $20-million water intake project for the city’s water treatment plant.
Right behind those projects, in terms of regional importance, would be the remaining two legs of the ambitious regional waste water pipeline project.
And every Central Alberta municipality has similar wish lists, ready and waiting.
These are projects that fit the framework touted by Flaherty: they are shovel ready, well conceived and hold great value for the communities involved well into the future.
Yet federal and provincial officials seem unable to expedite approval for these projects.
“There’s a bit of a turf war between the provincial government money and the federal government money,” Red Deer Mayor Morris Flewwelling told the Globe and Mail this week.
That’s not how national emergencies get solved.
Municipalities are holding up their ends of the bargain. It’s time for the two higher levels of government to focus on the tasks at hand and get Albertans working. It’s time for a little trust.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.