Presentation to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities
On February 16, 2017, Professor Kevin Quigley provided the following statement to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities:
Testimony - Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities - Feb 16th 2017
Good afternoon, Madame Chair, and thank you to the committee for inviting me.
I’m before the committee today to talk about infrastructure planning from my position as an academic and researcher focused on infrastructure and risk governance.
Infrastructure spending – on transportation, energy, telecommunications, for example – is not always the sexiest topic, noted John Ivison, but historically, these investments have changed our society. Indeed, new technologies offer similar promise. Infrastructure investments in wireless technologies, high speed commuter trains and driverless cars, for example, will not just accommodate needs of future communities, they will shape them.
But this is largely an expression of hope over experience. In fact, many infrastructure projects fall short of expectations; they run late and over budget; they are incremental, not transformative; the decision-making process is opaque, and policy decisions are not well coordinated.
Infrastructure projects are subject to considerable market, popular and interest group pressures, which influence the outcomes.
Market pressures will emerge due to fluctuations in economic forecasts and competition over available capital and between different technologies;
There is also a disparity between large urban areas and everywhere else. While some well-populated regions have considerable transportation infrastructure, less populated areas of the country simply don’t have the population or means to build the transportation infrastructure they need.
There are also market failures which government should address – climate change and security concerns, for example, cannot be justified in a private sector cost-benefit analysis.
There are also popular pressures. How to pay for the infrastructure will raise controversy - on the role of user fees and tolls, and the role of the private sector in managing, financing and in some cases owning the infrastructure. These aren’t strictly market considerations; they are normative ones. People don’t like tolls and user fees, and look with distrust on P3 arrangements, despite the opportunities they might offer.
Moreover, there is always popular pressure to create new infrastructure; maintaining assets gets less attention, despite the cost; retiring assets can be unpopular, despite the savings.
Regrettably, our political arrangements can limit cooperation between parties, districts and orders of government.
Here are some suggestions.
First, we need better regional planning - longer term, more nimble and better coordinated. New Zealand, for example, has a thirty-year infrastructure plan. Canada has no such plan, though longer term planning opens up the opportunity for market and policy entrepreneurialism, seizing opportunities as they present themselves. It also encourages better coordination between private sector, government agencies and all orders of government, taking trade, security, environment into account.
Secondly, we need better public engagement and education; we need to build communities that people want to live in. Infrastructure investments are not strictly economic investments, carried out by large and at a distance multi-national corporations. They carry an aesthetic aspect; we must also be confident that people will use the technologies that we are introducing, which may be a challenge in certain demographics. At the same time people need to understand the trade-offs and choices between hockey rinks and a commuter rail.
Third, we need better asset management; this requires better data collection and more research capacity. Here, Canada is falling behind the UK and Australia who have established multi-disciplinary research centers of excellence that don’t yet exist in Canada. We should support a research network that includes researchers in computer science, urban planning, public economics, trade, security, and environment and so on.
Finally, we also need clear accountability and transparency in the decision making process, as well as reasonable and measureable performance. This is particularly crucial because of the high level of distrust with P3s; interestingly, people trust small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) more than they do government and the finance sector. The federal government should build on this by including SMEs in its planning.
Ivison notes that infrastructure is not the sexiest topic; I agree; and this is what concerns me most; that its failure to capture the popular imagination in today’s media culture means that it might be overlooked. In fact, as we know, infrastructure spending can be in the billions; it can take years to plan and the outcome – for good or for ill – we will have to live with for generations. It’s worth trying to get it right.
 Ivison, J. “Liberal infrastructure plan may not be sexy, but it’s sensible.” National Post. February 9, 2016. Accessed from http://news.nationalpost.com/full-comment/john-ivison-liberal-infrastructure-plan-may-not-be-sexy-but-its-sensible