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Gambling on federal grants

Exeter Times-Advocate Editorial

Most people buying a car have a specific length of time they expect the vehicle to last.

They might plan on trading in a new car in four years’ time, or hope the junker they bought Junior will not self-destruct before the end of the school term.

The only people who buy a car expecting it to last decades, if not forever, are those intending to keep it wrapped in plastic in a climate-controlled vault. If they plan to use it, it goes without saying they also plan to maintain it, and to eventually replace it.

So why does our federal government not expect to do the same with the roads on which all those cars and trucks travel, and other infrastructure, much of it built decades ago with federal money?

The fact is, our way of life depends on our roads, and all infrastructure has a lifespan requiring a maintenance and replacement schedule. The federal infrastructure funding model in place does not reflect this reality.

A recent report by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities describes the funding model as a lottery — a process that does not provide the stable funding needed for long-term planning.

Make no mistake — local municipalities have benefited greatly from that infrastructure lottery. Huge projects that could never have been tackled on municipal budgets alone have been accomplished.

The lottery system has its benefits, but also drawbacks. Some lower priority work is getting done while high priority items sit on the back burner because of strict grant criteria. Some smaller municipalities are losing out on grants because they lack the staff to do the detailed applications.

Further, because grants are awarded in batches and timeframes for projects are narrow, it is well nigh impossible for municipalities to take advantage of a contractor’s “slow time” to get a more competitive price. And then there is the way the grant money is paid out — at the end of the project. The municipality has to pay the project’s bills as they come in with borrowed money, which ups the cost.

The FCM welcomes the federal government’s six-month investigation into its long-term infrastructure plan, and hopes it translates into stable, fair funding.

How the federal government responds to its investigation remains to be seen. Smart money is on the “new program that looks like the old one” card.

Should there be stable, long-term funding for infrastructure projects, or more likely, a combination of stable funding and lottery-style grants, it is unlikely there will be enough added federal dollars to deal with that infrastructure deficit.

Municipalities are going to be on the hook for most of it — the level of government least able to pay.

Perhaps the time has come to take a close look at changing not only the way municipalities traditionally raise taxes, but at the type of infrastructure that will be needed a couple of decades from now.

Skyrocketing fuel costs are bound to lead to changes in the way municipalities function, with “full service” communities where people can live, work and play edging out commuter communities. Municipalities need to plan so they have the appropriate infrastructure in place — environmentally friendly and community focused.

— from the Wingham Advance-Times

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