How government bureaucracy keeps blocking Canadians from building the critical infrastructure we need


Canada continues to enjoy some strong economic fundamentals, including resilient banking and manufacturing sectors, a growing network of trade agreements and a diverse and highly educated workforce.

But a recent report from Deloitte and the Business Council of Canada reveals our sliding global competitiveness is testing business leaders’ confidence. Canada’s economy grew by just 0.1 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2018 — the poorest quarterly performance in two and a half years.

One wound is frustratingly self-inflicted: critical infrastructure projects languish amid cumbersome federal, provincial and municipal review and approval processes. These delays risk crippling crucial Canadian trade corridors.

A five-year wait just doesn’t make sense, especially for a privately-funded rail project on privately-owned land

The Canadian Global Cities Council (CGCC) — a coalition of presidents and CEOs of Canada’s eight largest urban regional Chambers of Commerce and Boards of Trade — is calling on all levels of government for faster completion of approval and review processes, so infrastructure can be built without further delay.

A recent Toronto Region Board of Trade report identified priority projects to improve people and goods movement in Canada’s Innovation Corridor — an economic zone anchored by the GTHA and Waterloo regions serving as the base for half of the country’s manufacturing — that is currently choked by gridlock.

Among the recommended projects is CN’s Milton Logistics Hub — a $250-million facility planned to alleviate capacity constraints while minimizing impact to the local environment through advanced technology and design — labelled as “a quick win.”

A quick win because, once approved, this badly-needed intermodal terminal can be built in 24 months, helping businesses to move manufacturing inputs and finished goods to and from domestic and international markets, and reducing highway gridlock.

But getting to a win is anything but quick. In March 2015, CN announced plans to build the facility with its own money, on its own land. That year, a comprehensive environmental assessment and regulatory review process began.

It’s still happening, all these years later.

Meanwhile, despite our already congested rail corridor, the Ontario government joined a legal challenge by Halton Region last year, which contended that federally-regulated CN also needed a myriad of additional approvals from the province and local municipalities for the Milton Hub. In January, the Superior Court of Ontario predictably stayed the challenge, awarding CN its legal costs.

Even if the federal government approves this project, it likely wouldn’t take place until later this year, or early 2020, meaning that it will have taken CN nearly five years to get the OK to construct this badly needed facility.

A five-year wait just doesn’t make sense, especially for a privately-funded rail project on privately-owned land.

These kinds of delays aren’t limited to one company, industry or city region.

The uncertainty ripples right across the country to the Port of Vancouver, Canada’s biggest port handling 147 million tonnes of cargo worth $200 billion. Serious doubts have been raised about how the port can handle surging container capacity and trading volume resulting from new trade agreements, notably the CPTPP. The port authority launched an extensive environmental study of the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 Project in 2011, which determined the proposed site had established intermodal connections and the terminal can be built while managing the effects on the surrounding ecosystem. The federal assessment began in 2014. It continues. Once approved, the terminal would take six years to complete. As time passes, costs to construct the terminal increase while U.S.-based competition continues to invest.

And of course, the Trans Mountain pipeline remains mired in approvals gridlock.

It’s Canada’s imperative to build the strategic infrastructure needed to transport people and goods efficiently. We can look to jurisdictions leveraging successful public-private partnerships to build for today’s needs and plan for future growth. The Réseau express métropolitain LRT project serves as a model: announced in April 2016, the City of Montreal’s partnership with Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec delivered on a municipal priority while successfully engaging provincial approval and participation and triggering $1.3 billion in federal funding. The project broke ground just under two years later.

Since February 2018, the CGCC has pushed for a national urban strategy that would shift from an ad hoc approach to infrastructure investment to one that supports long-range planning and aligns with cities’ priorities. Through a national standard, the federal government could take the lead of assessing project quality through a central agency, rather than the current mix of provincial, municipal and other agencies. A robust approvals process should be comprehensive but tailored to size — ensuring that critical but modestly-sized projects aren’t delayed unnecessarily.

If this continues, we risk losing out from cost inflation, lagging private sector investment, labour shortages stemming from construction delays, and the list goes on. We need to get moving in the same direction to deliver the infrastructure we need now to support a competitive and prosperous economy.

Jan De Silva is president and CEO of the Toronto Region Board of Trade and chair of the Canadian Global Cities Council (CGCC). Patrick Sullivan is president and CEO of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce and vice chair of the CGCC.

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