COQUITLAM, B.C. — Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is promising to prioritize infrastructure spending on projects intended to cut commuting times as part of a wider pledge to reshape how the federal government doles out billions annually for roads, bridges, highways, and transit systems.
Scheer made the pledge in Coquitlam on Friday and said the George Massey tunnel replacement in the greater Vancouver area would be placed high on a Conservative government's priority list.
"Far too many Canadians spend more time stuck in traffic then out enjoying their surroundings or, more importantly, at home with their families and loved ones," Scheer said.
He also promised to get funding moving quickly to subway extensions in Toronto and a third crossing of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec City. All three projects are planned in battlegrounds between the Conservatives and Liberals.
Scheer looked to capitalize on commuter frustrations by accusing the Liberals of botched spending through myriad federal infrastructure programs during their time in office and saying they failed to deliver for Canadians tired of being stuck in traffic or waiting for public transit.
He promised to keep funding projects that have already been approved, but the decision to green-light new initiatives would be based on a key criteria: Will this project reduce commute times?
"If the answer is yes, then that project will be put to the top of the list on the approvals process," Scheer said.
At first blush, the Conservatives don't make it entirely clear how they plan to easily prioritize funding through the $187 billion in federal money set aside for various infrastructure programs over the next decade. Provinces have already signed 10-year funding agreements.
Scheer vowed to work "collaboratively with the provinces" to negotiate new agreements.
"Obviously, provinces and municipalities will have their priorities as well," Scheer said. "Ours will be reducing commute times."
Statistics Canada reported in February that 1.5 million Canadians spent at least 60 minutes commuting to work in 2016, with just over half — about 854,000 people — doing that in their car. About 60 per cent of Canadians in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver with a usual place of work had long commutes by car.
Across the country, data from the 2016 census showed average commute times of 26 minutes, up almost one minute from 2011 when Statistics Canada first put the question on the census.
Scheer said expanding roads and bridges to accommodate more cars would reduce commute times and emissions, with his assertion coming on a day marked by global marches demanding governments take urgent action on climate change.
Unlike other major party leaders, Scheer did not take part in any of Friday's climate change marches. A question about what the leader would lose if he did attend an event was interrupted by a loud car alarm blaring for a couple minutes. When he could finally answer, Scheer said cars idling leads to higher emissions.
Anne Thompson stood near the Conservative announcement holding a sign that read, among other things, "Change is blowing in the wind." She said she was not surprised that Scheer did not attend a climate rally and she was disappointed with the party's environmental plans.
"I see that the situation has become dire and we need to act, we need to get the attention of everybody and get everybody on board for climate action," she said.
Scheer was also pressed on favourable comments on the federal carbon tax attributed to former B.C. MLA Marc Dalton, now running for the Conservatives in the riding of Pitt Meadows—Maple Ridge.
The Conservative leader has made scrapping the carbon tax a key promise of his campaign, railing against the Liberal measure as ineffective to combating climate change. The Liberal war room sent out a release before Scheer's event highlighting Dalton's 2017 comments in the legislature about how the carbon tax in that province "appears to be working," and called the measure "a tool to change behaviour and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions."
Dalton attended short campaign stop with Scheer at a rural farm in Maple Ridge where he said his position on the environment had not changed and he believed the Conservatives had the best plan to tackle carbon emissions.
"I don't support the Liberal plan because I believe it really impacts motorists," he said.
Scheer, his wife, Jill, Dalton and farm owner Natalia Zhandarmova walked around the area during light rain showers picking apples and petting a goat. Scheer was scheduled to make a campaign stop at a restaurant in Richmond in the evening to highlight the party's infrastructure pledge.
The Liberal promise of billions in new federal infrastructure spending was a cornerstone of their successful 2015 election campaign, but once in government they, like two federal governments that preceded them, found that the promise of big infrastructure spending is often stymied by realities of how the money flows.
Federal funds are only made available once receipts are filed, which causes a lag between when work occurs and money is paid out. Work can also be held up by natural disasters, short construction seasons, or unforeseen issues like labour disputes. Provinces can cause delays in how they take in and pass on proposals from municipalities.
Scheer also promised to scrap the Canada Infrastructure Bank, which the Liberals created in 2017 and infused with $35 billion in funding over 10 years to help attract private-sector cash to fund large projects.
So far, the agency has seven project agreements, including a $1.28 billion loan to Montreal's electric-rail project, best known by its French acronym, REM. Conservative officials would only say that the party would complete announced projects.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 27, 2019.