by Vincent Puhakka
Although the dust has only just settled on the longest election campaign in recent Canadian history; it’s time we took stock of our Prime Minister-elect and his plans for public transit. On the surface, things look good: the Liberal Party’s signature promise to run three years of deficits to fund infrastructure investment stands in stark contrast to the previous government’s record of piecemeal, project by project spending. Another breath of fresh air was the explicit mention of transit in these platform announcements (as opposed to the omnipresent ‘roads and bridges’ we hear about south of the border, if rail lines or bus stops are inferior to auto infrastructure!) Finally, this is a government elected with significant support from city dwellers and to maintain support we can expect the Liberals to move quickly on investments in urban mobility. In spite of all this, those of us who are progressive and pro transit should pause before jumping on the ‘Real Change’ Trudeau bandwagon.
To begin with, as TTCriders so helpfully pointed out in the Vote Transit report card, Justin Trudeau is on record as expressing strong support for the Public Private Partnership (also called P3) model of infrastructure development. For example, in a speech to the Canadian Council for Public Private Partnerships made before the election, he stated that government is cash poor and needs private finance to construct the ports, hospitals or transit that the Liberals want to see built. Never mind that an admission of government poverty is a surrender to low tax, anti deficit hysteria; the fact that he chose to address such an audience in the first place speaks volumes about the approach his new government will take.
It’s easy to say “who cares, at least we’re going to get transit that the Conservatives never would have funded”. However, if we look at past experience, the use of the P3 model likely means that transit projects will cost far more than their initial estimates and ultimately may not get built at all. Proponents of P3’s will argue that they unlock private capital and transfer risk from the public to the private sector. In reality, this almost never happens in large infrastructure projects as corporations will only join a P3 if risk is not substantially passed to them. Also, they are highly unlikely to put forward a majority of the project cost. (unless the public sector allows the firm or consortium to operate the project upon completion which, for transit, often results in a wholesale privatization of the system.)
Finally, then umber of engineering/consulting firms with the financial clout to undertake large projects is very concentrated, meaning that if one consortium walks away from it’s obligations, as happened with the London tube in the mid 2000’s, there is no other firm in existence to take up the contract and citizens end up holding the bill. All of these negative outcomes have happened in many locales where P3’s are used, yet the belief persists that only through the private sector are governments able to complete expensive projects. To be fair, since the election, some newly elected Liberal MP’s have said that municipalities will be able to opt out of the P3 arrangements the Conservatives mandated.1 The problem is, in Canada’s political system, party leaders wield enormous power within their organizations and it is up to us, as progressive transit activists, to hold Justin Trudeau to account and make sure we actually get the change we voted for on October 19th, instead of Conservative policies hidden under a red carpet.
PS: For anyone interested in delving more into the specifics of how Public Private Partnerships work and the problems they cause when building transit should read “Wrong Turn”: a report by Dr. John Loxley from the University of Manitoba. Published by the Parkland Institute in Edmonton, it is focused on that city yet the findings are very relevant across the country.
Graphic taken from Friends of public services campaign.