Denley: Doug Ford steps up for the City of Ottawa. Now it’s Trudeau’s turn

The $600 million provincial support package was cleverly crafted to match Ford’s priorities. There is nothing the Prime Minister likes more than infrastructure. But the feds also have to compromise.

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The new city of Ottawa $600 million financial support agreement with the provincial government is unprecedented and encouraging, not only because of the significant amount of money involved, but also because of the long-overdue recognition that the province’s second-largest city deserves special attention from Queen’s Park.

For too long, provincial governments have done everything they can to help Toronto while, at best, treating Ottawa as an afterthought. The deal Premier Doug Ford and Mayor Mark Sutcliffe announced last week puts an end to that. The money will go a long way toward reducing Ottawa’s budget pressures over the next three years.

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The deal was cleverly designed to match Ford’s priorities. There’s nothing the Prime Minister likes more than infrastructure, and Ford agreed to provide money to build a new Highway 416 interchange to serve Barrhaven; help pay for a bus transit lane that will connect Kanata to the LRT’s western terminus; and take possession of Ottawa Road 174, a former provincial highway. The agreement includes $50 million for infrastructure and rural roads. There is also money to meet housing targets, although that is not new and is part of an existing provincial program.

Kanata North Transitway is an intriguing project and is more likely to be built than the city’s long-planned LRT expansion into the western suburb. The Kanata LRT extension is estimated to cost $1.8 billion, and a city report last fall said annual operating costs would be $62 million. All of this is expected to increase Kanata ridership by two percent, generating $5 million in fares. The words “bad idea” come to mind. The premier has said the province will not fund it at this time.

On the contrary, expanding the transit route would cost approximately $240 million. The province has pledged $80 million under the assumption that the city and the federal government would contribute $80 million each. If that doesn’t work, the city will still receive the $80 million for other transportation priorities.

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On the operational side, the city has taken advantage of the prime minister’s interest in public safety, finding money for more policing and a police station in ByWard Market. The city had already planned to spend on that priority, just as it had on downtown economic recovery, another plan Ford was willing to support.

Supporting those items will free up money to help in other areas of the city’s budget. The gap between transit revenue and spending remains an issue that was not directly addressed in the new agreement with the province.

Overall, the city’s finances were better than expected last year. A report to the finance and corporate services committee. This week shows that tax-supported services finished the year with a surplus of $14.8 million, much better than the projected deficit of $6.6 million. Other city services also ran surpluses, but transportation ended up with a $22.5 million deficit, leaving the budget slightly in surplus overall.

There is a significant potential hurdle in the provincial government’s new money. Much of that depends on a similar amount of funding from the federal government. The agreement between the city and the province calls for the feds to spend $493 million, most of it $228 million to cover the costs of refugees and asylum seekers.

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The specific financial demands identified in the city-province report should put pressure on the federal government to do more for the capital, especially when its refugee program and work-from-home policies for government workers have such an effect on our city.

It remains to be seen whether the feds will act. The government is focused on its own survival and buying votes it already has in Ottawa might not be attractive.

At least the city and its taxpayers can be happy with the provincial agreement. Full marks to Sutcliffe for developing a strong relationship with Ford and his administration. Without it, little or none of those $600 million would reach our hands.

Randall Denley is a journalist and author from Ottawa. Contact him at [email protected]

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