Liberals should not push through infrastructure bank without debate: Editorial

A great deal remains murky about the Trudeau government’s plan to create a Crown corporation that would raise private funds to help finance much-needed public infrastructure projects.We don’t know enough, for instance, about the dimensions of the problem the proposed Canadian Infrastructure Bank (CIB) seeks to address. Or how the bank fits into a larger strategy to tackle that problem. Or how, exactly, its decisions would be made – and by whom. We don’t know whether, all things considered, such an initiative makes sense.What we do know is that before this infrastructure bank is created, we need to know more. We know that this $35-billion investment in a matter of profound national importance should not be railroaded through Parliament as a mere footnote in a 300-page omnibus budget implementation bill, as the government is now trying to do. And we know that the one day a parliamentary committee was given to study the idea is simply not enough.The government should hive off the infrastructure-bank proposal from its budget bill and let Parliament do its work. Before Ottawa puts our future bridges, roads and water treatment facilities, et cetera, into the hands of private investors, it should make the case that doing so is in the public interest. Because so far that’s far from clear.There is little disagreement that successive governments have recklessly allowed our public infrastructure, most of which is owned by provincial and local governments, to deteriorate. We see this every day in the form of potholes and traffic jams, overburdened transit systems and wastewater overflows. The result is not just inconvenience, but a strain on quality of life, health, safety and the economy.Article Continued BelowThere is also a broad consensus that aggressive investment now would yield a host of benefits, both economic and social. Done right, spending on infrastructure can create new jobs, drive long-term economic growth, make cities more livable and help us pursue our environmental goals.The Trudeau government’s focus on this challenge is most welcome. But a year and a half into its mandate a number of crucial questions about Ottawa’s approach to its most ambitious spending program, and how the infrastructure bank fits into it, remain unanswered.For instance, while Ottawa has committed to a total of $186 billion in infrastructure spending over the next 11 years, it has offered no compelling story about where that number comes from. According to Azfar Ali Khan and Randall Bartlett, two former Parliamentary Budget Office officials now at the University of Ottawa, the government has not done a comprehensive accounting of the state of our infrastructure and as such “doesn’t have a clue” about the actual need. No one disputes that the gap is huge, but surely it is critical to understand the dimensions of the problem before deciding, say, that an infrastructure bank is an important part of the solution.