Canadian Government Executive - Volume 24 - Issue 02

18 / Canadian Government Executive // March/April 2018 Infrastructure W ith the launch of the Cana- da Infrastructure Bank and U.S. Congressional interest in Trump’s “trillion dollar” infrastructure promise, coupled with a widespread political appetite for infra- structure spending, it would be easy to be swept away in all the enthusiasm. But policy makers across North America need to think hard and clearly about infrastruc- ture choices. Contemporary research suggests five “touchstones”: 1. Not all infrastructure is equal – pick the right projects and the right partners; 2. Don’t just build the right infrastructure, build it right – infrastructure is part of the fast-evolving world of technology; 3. Be cautious about replacing infrastruc- ture that is in a state of flux – select in- frastructure that will serve the future, not just the present (or the past); 4. Pick the right planning horizon and the right scale – while the four-year elector- al cycle may be too short, a timeframe set by the useful life of heavy infrastruc- ture may be too long; local infrastruc- ture may be inefficient, while regional solutions may provide economies of scale and in-depth capacity; and, 5. Link infrastructure to other social goals – economic productivity, social inclu- sion, community building, technologi- cal innovation, et cetera. And that’s not an exhaustive list. Infrastructure decisions are big and long-lived decisions. They add to debt and deficits – but they can also set economic directions, enhance productivity and en- vironmental protection, and improve qual- ity of life for individuals and communities. The price tags can be large: but expensive infrastructure projects of the past now often seem like prudent investments. Of course, the reverse is also true: while wise, future-oriented infrastructure decisions can serve us for generations, short-sighted or wasteful infrastructure choices can be a burden for decades, eroding both capital budgets and public support. Let’s look at the five touchstones in turn. Not all infrastructure is equal The case for infrastructure has many champions: those looking to restore de- teriorated systems, and those proposing new facilities and services to serve future needs; those who have a solid business case, and those who see political advan- tage; those who want to modernize, and those who want to memorialize. It can be hard to differentiate. Some infrastructure projects attract pri- vate capital, or allow its cost to be shared By Michael Fenn infrastructure decisions over its useful life by all those who will use it. Some infrastructure has a leap-of-faith dimension, or is built to “create a market”, such as our past experience with rural electrification or building transcontinental railways. Proposals to upgrade VIA Rail Canada’s speed and service frequencies, or to extend 4G mobile broadband to rural areas, or to improve port-centred intermo- dal shipping in Canada may provide the foundation and set the stage for ongoing operational or even commercial viability. Don’t just build the right infrastructure – build it right Infrastructure is part of the fast-evolving world of technology. It is also affected by other so-called “megatrends” – social, environmental, fiscal, political and of course, economic. A traditional infrastruc- ture facility may have a life expectancy of fifty years, but changing markets, urban conditions and technological innovation may argue for a shorter time horizon. Con- sider that twenty years ago there were no iPhones, no Twitter, little digital com- merce, no 911 preoccupations and fossil fuels were the incontestable fuel source for vehicles. Looking into the future can be problematic, but building infrastruc- ture based on past practice can be equally wasteful and shortsighted. Five touchstones for Canadian governments making