Government prioritizes transit, green energy, health

Ottawa and provinces are putting on their policy caps in considering how COVID will change society
Government prioritizes transit, green energy, health

In March, Infrastructure Canada announced the launch of the country’s first national infrastructure assessment. Entitled “Building the Canada We Want in 2050,” the engagement paper sets out the assessment undertakings. It seeks input from the public, Indigenous Peoples, provinces, territories, municipalities, and other stakeholders on three broadly stated priorities.  

More specifically, the engagement paper notes that the COVID-19 pandemic “has caused a severe economic crisis, making it even more critical to create jobs and accelerate growth. Coupled with the need to address the climate crisis and address disparities to promote inclusion, long-term and well-coordinated investments in infrastructure have become even more important.” 

Governments are now putting on their policy caps in thinking about how the pandemic will change the ways we work and live, says James LeMoine, a partner in Norton Rose Fulbright LLP’s Vancouver office.  

For example, the trend toward working from home may lead to infrastructure developments on the broadband side, increasing internet capability.  

“I think it was apparent during the pandemic that people in our large urban centers were well served,” LeMoine says. “But you didn’t have to go very far afield where our broadband communications are rather limited in Canada… so, I think there’s going to be a real focus now on ‘how do we increase capacity and capability outside of the urban cores?’” As governments transition from dealing with the crisis to coming out of it, “we’re starting to hear more about that,” he adds. 

“I suspect over the remainder of this year and into next year, we’re going to see big policy decisions and implementation of those decisions. Because of the 18-month pause with the pandemic, there’s a lot of things waiting.” 

COVID-19 has accentuated some weaknesses in infrastructures, such as in the health care and justice sectors. However, the pandemic has also confirmed several existing trends like renewable energy transportation and the environment and urged us to rethink technology-related issues such as fibre optics and broadband development, says Jean Patrick Dallaire, a partner in Langlois Lawyers in Montreal. 

“These priorities should coexist based on announced investments, both here and abroad,” Dallaire says, “but as some sectors have been hit harder, we will likely see changes in public and private investments.” 

In the United States, President Joe Biden announced his plan in June to correct the infrastructure deficit. The bipartisan plan authorizes $1.2 trillion of spending over the next five years and includes billions to improve roads, bridges and broadband access. 

The impact of COVID-19 on the use of fibre optics and broadband seems long-lasting, and presents opportunities in education and employment as well, says Dallaire. “This is reflected in the priorities announced by the American and Canadian governments.” 

Following bilateral talks between President Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the two countries recently agreed to a “Roadmap for a Renewed U.S.-Canada Partnership,” that includes a shared vision for a sustainable and inclusive economic recovery and an “accelerated ambition” to address the climate crisis and protect nature. The joint statement recognizes the role of infrastructure in both countries’ energy systems, trade and transportation networks, and border and security systems.  

The federal government’s recent announcements build on its Investing in Canada Plan, launched in 2016, which committed more than $180 billion over 12 years to infrastructure, including public transit, ports, broadband networks, energy systems, community services and natural spaces.  

Public transit and transportation 

Canada’s Strengthened Climate Plan has already begun making infrastructure investments to meet its climate action ambitions, which include a February announcement of $14.9 billion in new funding for public transit over 8 years, including for major transit projects, zero-emission buses and electrification, rural transit solutions, active transportation and permanent public transit funding of $3 billion annually starting in 2026.

Quebec's ten-year, $135-billion infrastructure plan, also announced in March, has targeted $2.6 billion for its road network. Another $1.5 billion will be directed to improving mobility and electrifying public transit, which it anticipates will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These investments are consistent with Quebec’s 2030 Plan for a Green Economy, says Dallaire, who notes that travel will soon resume as pandemic restrictions ease.

Major projects that were underway during the pandemic or will be advanced have been announced in the past year, including – in British Columbia -- TransLink beginning public consultation on the SkyTrain extension from the City of Vancouver to the University of British Columbia.

The Green Line LRT -- the largest infrastructure project in Calgary’s history, with $4.9 billion in commitments from the governments of Canada, Alberta and Calgary – is moving forward.

Ontario announced it would revive Hamilton's light-rail transit system with a renewed $1 billion commitment, contingent on federal funding (the project had been cancelled in December 2019).

In Quebec, Montreal’s $6.3-billion light-rail train system – the Réseau express métropolitain (REM) -- saw the arrival of its first fleet of trains in the fall, and announced that summer 2021 would be “the project’s biggest work season”; and in May, the province announced an ambitious public transit plan for Quebec City, including $7 billion for a third link from the downtown to the municipality of Lévis.

“I think transit is remaining a significant priority,” says LeMoine, “and that probably ties into another area, which is green infrastructure and climate change.”

Energy systems and environment 

There is a continued push to renewable energy projects in the Atlantic region, says Neal Leard, a partner in Stewart McKelvey LLP’s Saint John, N.B. office. New Brunswick focused on creating small modular reactors for the province’s nuclear power plant, he says, and Nova Scotia is likewise developing its renewable energy sources. Nova Scotia Power now boasts more than 300 commercial wind turbines generating electricity, making that province a national leader in wind energy as a percentage of total generation capacity. By 2040, Nova Scotia’s tidal energy industry could contribute up to $1.7 billion to the province’s gross domestic product. 

“The green energy push is the biggest thing we see,” says Leard. “I think a lot of that is backed up by … federal funding … and policy initiatives” and driven by the regulated utility providers and port authorities.  

Canada proposed the Atlantic Loop transmission project, which would link power grids in the Maritimes with those in Quebec to wean consumers in the region off coal-, oil- and diesel-fueled generation. These projects are “all originating from a federal level, with the desire to reduce carbon emissions,” Leard adds. “You are starting to see a lot of movement toward greener energy,” and away from the Atlantic region’s traditional coal plants and heavy oil plants. 

LeMoine points to the Alberta Irrigation project in the West, to which the Canada Infrastructure Bank has committed $407.5 million. The project should revitalize irrigation systems that are 80 to 100 years old, he says. Last summer, Saskatchewan announced its own $4-billion irrigation project at  Lake Diefenbaker.

As well, “when we look at the coasts and rising sea level, the talk has got to stop soon, and action taken on how we are going to deal with infrastructure [and] solutions to keep our cities and ports resilient,” LeMoine says, pointing to the damage done to storm-ravaged cities. Such projects are expensive, which would necessitate government funding, he adds. “The cost of not doing them, from a societal point of view, is massive.” 

Health care 

In its 2021-2031 infrastructure plan, Quebec awarded $3.1 billion to homes for seniors and upgrades to hospitals and long-term care centres. And under its Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program, the government has invested a similar amount at the start of the pandemic to improve ventilation in buildings, create parks and cycling paths and upgrade hospitals and long-term care homes. 

The “acute focus” on hospitals has helped bring them up to state-of-the-art standards, where infection control is a priority, says LeMoine. The pandemic has driven home the fact that long-term care facilities have not enjoyed the same focus but may be “a priority for governments across the country, given the devastation that occurred in care homes with COVID-19.” 

He points to the Swift Current Long-Term Care Centre in Saskatchewan as a model of success during the pandemic. This new 225-bed long-term care public facility replaced three aging facilities and was the first such project to be delivered by the government of Saskatchewan using the P3 approach. Recently renamed The Meadows, it is owned by the local health authority, while maintenance of it has stayed with the private sector, which also financed the construction. The facility was the Silver Award recipient in the infrastructure category of the 2016 National Awards for Innovation and Excellence in Public-Private Partnerships. 

Lawyer(s)

James (Jay) J. LeMoine Jean Patrick Dallaire Neal L.D. Leard

Firm(s)

Norton Rose Fulbright LLP Langlois lawyers, LLP