Our work-a-day lives tend to follow predictable patterns, and it all starts with municipal infrastructure.

The alarm goes off and the lights go on.  We hit the switch on the coffee maker, push the handle on the toilet, turn the tap in the shower.  Whether we ride the bus or drive a car, we all use the roads, and we all stop on red and go on green.  After a short stroll on the sidewalk, it’s into the office, the factory, the store, whatever.

Work at the Canada West Foundation has its own patterns.  We labour intensely on a piece of research, publish and release a study, and then negotiate the inevitable bombardment of media interviews.  Then comes “the tour”—speeches, presentations, meetings, and panel discussions where we share our research and expertise.

The “tour” is a welcome diversion.  It’s a chance to get out from under all the data and analysis, and all the reading and writing, and meet up with those who deal with policy on the ground and in the trenches.  Since launching LetsTOC I’ve had a tour or two.

Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association (SUMA), Regina, SK (January 31, 2012)

This is mammoth gathering of mayors, councillors, aldermen, and local officials from every urban municipality in Saskatchewan is always a great event.  Together with John Lee, President of Communities of Tomorrowwe presented on LetsTOC.  I focused on the infrastructure challenge and made the case for more innovative approaches.  When John took the reins, he highlighted some of the interesting examples of innovation spurred by Communities of Tomorrow and their innovation network across Saskatchewan.

On the SUMA convention floor, I heard time and again how infrastructure is the single biggest issue for municipalities in the province.  Prior to our session, SUMA delegates were asked about the biggest infrastructure challenges they face, and what innovative solutions they have pursued.

The biggest challenges were adequate funding, managing growth, and the aging and deterioration of existing assets.  Innovations mentioned the most often were partnering with other municipalities and agencies, testing new technologies and starting pilot projects, and implementing a “dedicated” or “earmarked” tax levy for infrastructure.

I was pleased with the pick-up on “earmarked” tax levies.  I urged that policy response in New Tools for New Times and No Time to be Timid and Delivering the Goods.  As noted by Konrad Siu in his recent article, Edmonton has taken a similar approach for rebuilding neighbourhood infrastructure.

One of my “take-aways” from SUMA is the remarkable degree of cohesiveness in the municipal sector today.  At the event, I met up with municipal players from across the West.  While waiting on the bus to my hotel, I chatted with Joe Masi, Executive Director of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities (AMM).  While on the bus, I talked with Linda Sloan, President of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA).  Regina Councillor Fred Clipsham cornered me and we strolled the tradeshow together talking about issues in the provincial capital.  At a reception hosted by Regina Mayor Pat Fiacco, a promotional video was shown for September’s National Infrastructure Summit I was a little surprised, however, that I was one of the co-stars.

Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties (AAMDC), Edmonton, AB (March 20, 2012)

Like SUMA, infrastructure was front and centre for the 600 plus delegates at AAMDC’s annual conference.  And, with good reason.  AAMDC estimates that rural municipalities are responsible for 80% of all roadways in the province.  Road maintenance and bridge rehabilitation are emerging as big issues in rural Alberta.

At this event, I had the dubious role of being the “after lunch speaker” and still managed to keep the attention of delegates.  I thought that was because I had worked hard to put a rural face on the infrastructure challenge, but it probably had more to do with my choice of an example of rural innovation—the new Jets Stadium in Vauxhall, Alberta.  This marvelous piece of recreational infrastructure is innovative to the core.  There’s a real story here, and it will be the focus of a blog article in coming weeks.  So stay tuned.

Economic Developers Alberta (EDA), Kananaskis, AB (April 12, 2012)

The EDA is the trade association that represents the economic development officers in the province.  John Lee and myself put the tag-team together again for this event.  I talked about the “scary” stuff—the billions upon billions of infrastructure that Canada needs.  John talked about the “exciting” stuff—the innovations occurring in infrastructure technology.

John also emphasized “opportunity.” With the global infrastructure need running into the trillions of dollars, there is a huge export market for innovation and technology.  John emphasized that “If an innovation can be made to work in the harsh climate of western Canada, it can work anywhere.”  I wrapped up by telling delegates how they can get involved in Let’s Transform Our Communities.

Infrastructure Canada (Steering Committee), Ottawa, ON (April 16, 2012)

In the 2011 budget, the federal government committed to constructing a long-term plan for the nation’s infrastructure.  To guide the development of that plan, Infrastructure Canada struck a steering committee.  Dr. Harry Kitchen, Professor Emeritus at Trent University, and myself spoke to the committee on innovative infrastructure finance.

I emphasized that the characteristics of an infrastructure asset should always drive decisions over financing, funding, and delivery.  For example, if an inherently marketable asset is in view, then funding should be through user fees.  If it’s a complex and complicated asset, then a P-3 approach might pay huge dividends in providing or delivering the asset.

I closed this presentation with a set of ideas that the federal government might consider in a new long-term infrastructure plan.  Top of the list was for the federal government to make a portion of its capital grants and transfers conditional on innovation.  The purpose, of course, is to incent and reward creative and innovative approaches to municipal infrastructure challenges.

All of this, however, is just the “first leg” of the tour for www.letstoc.ca.  The initiative continues to draw attention, and invitations to present continue to come.

By: Casey Vander Ploeg, Senior Policy Analyst