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Big city mayors seek more federal funds for social housing, public transit

OTTAWA - The mayors of Canada's largest cities say housing shortages and traffic gridlock are their top priorities, and that uncertain federal funding is damaging to society and the economy.

At a meeting in Ottawa that was almost overshadowed by the participation of controversial Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, municipal leaders from 22 cities presented a near-united front.

"Every single major city, and we had discussions about this this morning, is concerned about the lack of resources from the federal government," Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, the meeting's host, said at a news conference Wednesday.

A tight-fisted federal Conservative government, facing an election year in 2015, is focused on cost-cutting in order to present a fat federal surplus next spring that could pay for electorally attractive tax cuts.

The Harper government and big city mayors are at odds over a $1.7-billion social housing fund, but the prime minister has just rolled out a 10-year, $15-billion Building Canada infrastructure fund that was first announced in the 2013 budget.

Some $4 billion of that funding is dedicated to major, nation-building projects and another $1 billion is earmarked for communities of less than 100,000 population, leaving just less than $1 billion per year to be split among Canada's largest cities over the next decade.

"This doesn't even begin to deal with the deficit we have in infrastructure," said Gregor Robertson, the Vancouver mayor who serves as chairman of the Big Cities Mayors' Caucus.

Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel argues that when a federal gas tax fund and other infrastructure funds for municipalities are included, Ottawa will actually spend $53 billion over the next decade.

"Approximately 95 per cent of public infrastructure is owned by provinces, territories and municipalities, and the role of the federal government is one of a supportive funding partner," Lebel said in a release.

The numbers are staggering in magnitude, but so are the needs.

Hazel McCallion, the perennial mayor of Mississauga, Ont., noted the Greater Toronto Area alone needs $50 billion to fix crumbling roads, bridges and sewer lines.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi says his bursting city needs to spend $13 billion just on transit.

Vancouver's Robertson made the case that traffic gridlock costs the country $10 billion a year in lost productivity. And he said uncertain funding for social housing has an impact right up the economic ladder.

"We want to see more housing built that reaches right into the middle class because, increasingly, the middle class can't afford to live in Canadian cities," said Robertson.

Housing is the No. 1 priority for Canada's big cities, he said, followed by transit issues and then wastewater treatment.

Nenshi took specific aim at the freshly announced Building Canada infrastructure fund.

The Calgary mayor said the rules for the fund were made without any consultation "whatsoever" with municipalities, "and they're a bit weird.

"Actually, they're very weird — a bunch of very strange things in there."

Nenshi noted universities and for-profit organizations are now eligible for municipal infrastructure funds.

He said all projects worth more than $100 million must go through a screening process for public-private partnerships, and the federal government is using a process "that is not only outdated, it costs about 10 times as much and five times as much time as what they do in Europe."

"These are things we really need to get sorted."

Nenshi and several other mayors all said a $1.7-billion social housing fund expires next year, and they've been lobbying Ottawa for more than a year about maintaining it, without a response.

A spokesman for Candice Bergen, the cabinet minister responsible for social housing, said the funding is a mortgage subsidy for social housing.

"Once the mortgages are paid off, there is no longer a mortgage to subsidize," Andrew McGrath said in an email.

"The last of these mortgage subsidies will reach maturation in 2038. It is not accurate to say that the $1.7 billion in mortgage subsidies is expiring next year."

McCallion, the 93-year-old who has been mayor of the sprawling Mississauga suburb since 1978, attributed the funding fights to politics and predicted the logjam will break in the 2015 federal election year.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau pledged last weekend to spend up to one per cent of the country's GDP — roughly $18 billion — annually on infrastructure if he becomes prime minister.

McCallion used a little west-end Toronto geography to sum up the situation, predicting in the run-up to next October's election municipal infrastructure funds from Ottawa will "flow like the Credit River."

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