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Ontario infrastructure: the (good) roads ahead

Ontario’s top political players talked infrastructure, both present and future, at the 2023 Good Roads Annual Conference

May 30, 2023  By  Jack Burton

The Good Roads Annual Conference, taking place from April 16 to 19 at Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York, offered Ontario officials a glimpse of what the future holds when it comes to the province’s infrastructure, a major touchpoint between over 2,000 municipal officials, association members, and key thought leaders across politics and industry. 

Among the featured voices were some of the top decisionmakers in the province and country at large: After an opening address by federal Minister of Transportation Omar Alghabra on Sunday, April 16, the Monday saw Ontario Premier Doug Ford and his team, along with the NDP’s Marit Stiles, official leader of the provincial opposition, offering informative, if not conflicted, glimpses into the state of infrastructure and municipal relations across the province.

Ford’s foundational budget
Premier Ford began his speech by highlighting the recently-released provincial budget for 2023, speaking to the budget’s goals and how they relate to municipal leaders and provincial infrastructure, both presently and in terms of their impact in the years to come. 

“Last month, we introduced our 2023 budget for building a strong Ontario, and that’s exactly what we’re all doing for all 444 municipalities,” Ford shared. “The budget is a responsible but targeted plan to help people, businesses and communities today, while laying a strong foundation for generations to come.” 


Ford expanded on the budget’s focus, commenting both on its future-forward focus and unprecedented scale regarding the investments and improvements it looks to make to infrastructure across the province. 

“What we say when we’re talking about building roads, transit, and schools, is that we aren’t building it for tomorrow – we’re building it for the next 50 years,” he said. “Our plan to build includes the most ambitious capital plan in Ontario’s history, investing over $184 billion over the next decade. We have the largest infrastructure projects going on anywhere in North America over the next decade to build roads, highways, bridges, schools and hospitals, long-term care homes, and other key infrastructure projects to support the growth of our economy and communities.”

Building for growth
The grand ambition behind this capital plan largely comes from the amount of projects and initiatives across the province to build, expand, and rehabilitate a number of highways, with these projects totalling almost $28 billion over the next 10 years. 

Among these projects are the Bradford bypass connecting Simcoe County to York Region, the building of Highway 413, the new Highway 7 between Kitchener and Guelph, and a widening project on southwestern Ontario’s Highway 3. 

Ford also noted over 600 highway improvement plans across the province focused on expansion and rehabilitation, in addition to a $400-million contribution to Ontario’s Community Infrastructure Fund to renew and repair critical infrastructure across 425 rural and northern communities. 

The budget’s aspiration to provide a large-scale foundation for the future of provincial infrastructure is not an attempt to make the record books, but rather a necessity, said Ford, highlighting the rapid growth of the province and its industries, and the need to scale up to accommodate this growth that comes with it.

“We’re the fastest growing region in North America. Did anyone see the stats that came up from Stats Canada? It’s staggering: 445,000 people landed here in Ontario last year alone,” said Ford. “For the last six months, we’ve seen growth even as we see turbulent economic times around the world.”

Working together
Whether it’s the new realities of Ontario’s present moment or the changes that the government anticipates are set to come, it’s a team-oriented approach that Ford sees as paramount in his goal of building a more connected and growth-prepared province.

“I say, it’s a Team Ontario approach: It’s not one government, it’s not one person, it’s a Team Ontario approach. And because of Team Ontario, we’re continuing to grow,” he shared. “I don’t care if it’s the Liberals, NDP, or PC – if we work together, we’re unstoppable. Sure, there’s going to be some bumps in the road, but collectively, we all want the same things: we want economic growth, we want affordable housing, and we want infrastructure built in our communities.”

Another area of the budget that Ford highlighted during his speech was plans to build out skilled training programs with a $224-million investment, in an effort to both deal with the labour shortage and to increase the labour supply to meet the increase in infrastructure projects that this budget is bringing to the province.  

“We’re making real historic investments in employment and training programs to train the skilled workforce for growing economic needs, whether it’s upskilling workers, training new ones, or breaking down barriers to get skilled immigrants into the province,” said Ford. “We’re leaving no stone unturned.” 

From the numerous projects the government has budgeted for, to the training programs looking to prepare the workforce for the amount of jobs this will create, for Ford, the future of the province’s infrastructure looks bright.

“It’s all hands on deck,” he said. “Our population and the economy will grow continuously over the next number of years. We’re getting shovels in the ground, from Thunder Bay, to Kitchener, to Windsor, and everywhere in between.”

Collaboration with Good Roads

The Good Roads Annual Conference offers a major touchpoint between municipal officials,
association members, and key thought leaders across politics and industry.

Ontario Minister of Labour Monte McNaughton spoke more to the government’s forthcoming strategies for navigating of these labour shortages, including an announcement of a collaboration between the Ontario government and OGRA focused on accessible training and eLearning for rural and First Nations communities.

“Today, I’m pleased to announce that our government is investing $1.8 million to support this project. We’re delighted to work with Good Roads to help 625 workers prepare for today’s jobs, and to attract the next generation in public works,” said McNaughton. “This idea is exactly the kind of innovative thinking that our government is looking for: cost effective, flexible, and giving workers the skills they need for better jobs with bigger paychecks.”

The courses cover the basics of road construction and maintenance, heavy equipment operations, and leadership training for new supervisors, and will be supported through the provincial government’s Skills Development Fund.

Mulroney: all roads lead to roads
The current Conservative government concluded their speeches on the Monday with an appearance by Caroline Mulroney, Ontario’s Minister of Transportation. Mulroney reiterated the budget’s aim to accommodate the province’s growth, in terms of both population and industry, by ensuring that the proper infrastructure is in place to allow the connection of communities and markets that creates this growth to happen in the first place.

Marit Stiles, leader of the NDP opposition, discussed her concerns about what the current plans and approaches mean for municipal-provincial relations in terms of infrastructure.

“It starts with transportation,” she said. “Think about it: transportation, roads, bridges, buses, subways, is the one government service that every single one of us in this room and every single person across Ontario relies on every single day. We need the transportation network to get us to work, to get our goods to market, to get our kids to school, to get our parents to their medical appointments, and to get us all back home safely at the end of the day.”

Mulroney expanded on the ways in which the infrastructure budget hopes to achieve this, including $99 billion toward the building of transit and transportation infrastructure, and $27 billion for the planning and construction of expansion and rehabilitation projects for highways.

It’s through investing in achieving state-of-the-art highways and trade corridors that the government believes the province’s economy will come to be state-of-the-art as well.

“This is critical, because let’s not forget that everything, even in this room here today, was brought in by a truck that needed a road or a highway to get here,” she said. “And the rising costs that Ontarians are feeling every single day are impacted by the increased costs to move these goods. Gridlock alone costs our economy $11 billion in lost productivity a year.”

The cost of these investments is one that Mulroney outlined will pay for itself: every $1 billion invested in transit supports 10,000 jobs, she said, and boosts the economy or real GDP by another $1 billion. Jobs such as the construction of Highway 413 will support 3,500 jobs and generate up to $350 million in real GDP, with the building of the Bradford Bypass supporting over 2,600 jobs and generating $274 million annually in real GDP.

Views in opposition
An afternoon appearance by Marit Stiles, leader of the NDP opposition, offered a look behind the curtain of numbers and promises that the current government had spoken of earlier that morning. Her concerns focused less on the goals and data of the budget itself, and more on what these current plans and approaches mean for municipal-provincial relations in terms of infrastructure. 

Ontario Premier Doug Ford discussed the recently-released provincial budget for 2023,
speaking to its goals and how they relate to municipal leaders and provincial infrastructure.

“This conversation between us couldn’t have come at a more important time. You know this better than anyone,” she said. “Municipalities are the closest form of government for most people. No one understands better than you what’s happening day to day, and what will grow stronger communities. And of course, the roadblocks holding you back.”

Stiles highlighted the provincial government’s current approach to be one that is ignorant of the immediate needs of municipalities in favour of large-scale projects and smaller bottom lines.

“You’ve been asked to adapt at a moment’s notice, decades of planning have been overturned because of radical new changes, and after a pandemic that chewed away your funds and your savings, municipalities are looking at the government for more support. But instead, you’ve been dealt deep cuts and higher costs,” she said.

Bill 23: communication breakdown
The primary example of these unfair demands that Stiles looked toward was Bill 23, which she said shows that the system of communication and trust necessary for municipalities to advocate for their needs, especially when it comes to much-needed infrastructure repairs and updates, has been broken and overturned. 

Attendees had the opportunity to hear about the Province’s capital plan, which will include investments totalling more than $184 billion over the next decade.

“By moving ahead with Bill 23, this government made it clear that they’re not interested in hearing from municipalities,” said Stiles. “They sent a very clear message, [that] they’re going to act unilaterally, [and] they’re going to propose major changes without a consultation with municipalities. They’re willing to cause chaos, and then they’re going to leave it to municipalities and taxpayers to fill the financial gap.”

To Stiles and her party, the message sent by Bill 23 is not just a breakdown in order when it comes to municipal and provincial relations, but also a message that communicates a lack of support for municipal governments at a time when their infrastructure requires provincial assistance more than ever – assistance that Stiles reiterated they remain quite capable of providing.

“I felt that in [the] budget, the government sent the message home that municipalities are in this alone,” she said. “And there’s no help coming from a government, that I want to be completely clear, ended this year with a surplus. They’re flush with cash when municipalities are desperate for money.”

The province’s accessing of these fees creates a $5.1 billion hole over the next decade, Stiles shared, the consequences of which she believes will surely be felt. “We understand the importance of development fees that municipalities rely on to build roads and infrastructure. And we know that by accessing those fees, the livability of our towns and our cities, and ultimately the lives of Ontarians are being put on the line.”

While the truth of Ford’s message of working and building Ontario together is called into question by this, by no means does Stiles see this as the wrong approach – it’s in reliable and collaborative communication between all levels of government that she believes the province’s infrastructure problems can be solved, and it’s something she feels is desperately needed not only at the moment, but to secure an abundant future for the province. 

“If we are going to truly attract people to come and live in our province, if we’re going to recruit and retain the workers that we need here, we need to build Ontario. It’s absolutely essential,” she said. “This is only possible through a strong provincial-municipal partnership that allows Ontarians and people across this province to thrive. It means a provincial government that understands we gain more by working together, instead of offloading costs and responsibilities. That vision, and that dream, of an Ontario for that works for everyone is possible, and it can be the reality.”

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