By: Casey Vander Ploeg, Senior Policy Analyst, Canada West Foundation
In 2005, I was handed my biggest challenge as a Senior Policy Analyst with the Canada West Foundation. That challenge was to travel the globe—via the Internet of course—and answer a relatively simple question. How do world class cities finance, fund, and provide urban infrastructure? My global travels took me to cities across the US, western Europe, southeast Asia, and Australia.
The purpose of the quest was to get a handle on innovative solutions to the infrastructure funding issue, and it ended with the publication of “New Tools for New Times.” That piece still stands as one of the Foundation’s largest research studies to date, and it ate up well over a year of my professional life. Between its covers, you can find over 100 traditional and innovative tools for financing, funding, and delivering municipal infrastructure, complete with descriptions of how they work and where they have been put to work.
Across Canada, it’s estimated that our villages, towns, and cities have an infrastructure funding shortfall of some $123 billion. And, that’s just the amount needed to repair, renew, rehabilitate, and replace existing infrastructure assets. There could be up to another $115 billion needed to construct new infrastructure to accommodate growth. (See the study entitled “The Coming Collapse of Canada’s Municipal Infrastructure” by the Department of Civil Engineering at McGill University and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities).
Grand total? A cool $240 billion.
That’s a lot of cabbage. It amounts to about half of the federal net debt, or about $30,000 for each and every family of four in Canada.
Because the amount is so large—mammoth really—the search for workable solutions must go beyond the traditional approaches of the past. The sheer size of the infrastructure funding challenge puts a premium on new, fresh, creative, and innovative ideas and approaches. This “innovation imperative” is underscored by yet another sobering reality. Given the recent economic upheavals and the state of most government budgets, tax dollars are in relatively short supply. Budgets across the land remain in deficit.
Saskatoon City Manager Murray Totland is “right on the money” in a recent interview with the Insight Saskatchewan newsletter. Totland argues that “It’s going to be difficult just to fund our way out of this. The numbers are so staggering. Innovation is going to play a role.”
When it comes to innovation, whether it is inventing new technologies locally or adapting and adopting innovative approaches developed elsewhere, one thing is very clear. Innovation, as a process, does not occur in a vacuum. Innovation comes as the result of information exchange—interaction.
That’s the purpose behind “Let’s TOC.” Here, you will find not just a steadily building repository of innovative ideas and practical examples, but the opportunity to engage in constructive discussion and dialogue with a broad range of infrastructure practitioners on the latest and most promising innovative infrastructure ideas.
Resolving Canada’s municipal infrastructure challenge is going to take more than a new grant program. It’s going to take more than “tinkering” or “fiddling” with the status quo. It’s going to take more than “piddling” on the periphery. It’s going to take fresh ideas, creativity, and the capacity to innovate.
If there is any good news behind the $240 billion challenge, it is that the innovation “menu” is both wide and long, and includes everything from tax incremental financing, revenue bonds, community bonds, and smart debt to rational pricing models, strategic capital asset mangment, local option taxes, trenchless technologies, small scale wastewater treatment, grey-water recycling, pooled purchasing, rainwater harvesting, and “on-farm” water purification. And, those are just the appetizers.