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Industry stakeholders, economists give mixed reviews on CIB

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by Peter Caulfield

Although the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB) isn't expected to be up and running until the end of 2017, the federal agency is already attracting attention.
Industry stakeholders, economists give mixed reviews on CIB

The $35-billion CIB, which will leverage public funds to attract private investment for major infrastructure projects, was announced with much fanfare in the federal government's March 2017 budget.

In an announcement, Infrastructure and Communities Minister Amarjeet Sohi described the bank in expansive terms.

"The bank would use federal support to attract private sector and institutional investment to new revenue-generating infrastructure projects that are in the public interest," Sohi said. "By bringing these new investors to the table, federal, provincial, territorial, municipal and indigenous partners can choose to build more of the transformational infrastructure projects that Canadian communities need."

But political reception of the bank has been mixed, and passage of the enabling legislation was delayed in the Senate until June 22.

Some senators were concerned about the agency's independence, transparency and taxpayers' exposure to financial risk, and they attempted, without success, to amend the bill.

Some parties are already eyeing the bank's billions.

At the end of June, it was reported that the federal Ministry of Infrastructure had suggested the CIB might invest in Montreal's $5.3-billion automated light rapid transit project.

If, after due diligence, the CIB decides to proceed, its stake would replace the $1.28-billion grant towards the 67-kilometre, 27-station Reseau electrique metropolitain promised by the federal government.

Three thousand miles from Montreal, the state of Washington thinks the CIB could help finance a multibillion-dollar proposal for high-speed rail between Vancouver and the U.S. northwest.

The legislative blueprint for the bank allows the use of public money to help bankroll projects "in Canada or partly in Canada," provided there's a financial benefit and a physical connection to the country.

Washington is looking at the bank as a potential financing option for a high-speed rail connection between Portland, Seattle and Vancouver.

The Trudeau government has been preparing to open the CIB's doors for business by hiring staff.

In July, it appointed retired financial executive Janice Fukakusa as chair of the bank.

She will have a role in selecting the remaining members of the board of directors that will oversee the bank's operations, as well as the chief executive.

Todd Hirsch, chief economist of Alberta's ATB Financial, said he agrees with the bank's concept.

"It fills a niche, because finding capital for infrastructure projects is often difficult," he said. "Projects are huge and expensive. They take a lot of time to complete and the returns aren't large."

Hirsch said Canada's transportation network needs to be expanded in order to grow the economy.

"We have to think ahead and plan," he said. "It's hard to play catch-up on infrastructure."

But the government needs to be careful, Hirsch said.

"It leaves itself open to criticism if a project goes sideways," he said. "It doesn't matter if 20 projects are successful. If the 21st is unsuccessful or suffers cost overruns, many people will get upset, especially taxpayer groups."

Hirsch said a broken project could be a distraction for the government.

"Think of the CPR Pacific Scandal in the day of social media," he said. "But the government can keep out of political trouble by bulletproofing the board with some non-Liberal appointments."

Alex Carrick, chief economist of ConstructConnect in Markham, Ont., said the idea of the bank makes sense.

"It gives a focus for the private and public sector and for Canada's pension funds," he said. "We need ports, pipelines, airports, roads and rail systems that get us to remote resource regions."

At the same time, it's difficult to predict how much money should be spent where.

"What resources will be important in the future?" Carrick said. "If, for example, we're shifting to driverless cars and electric cars, what kinds of raw materials will be needed in the future? It's hard to anticipate correctly what resources will be needed when."

Chris Atchison, president of the British Columbia Construction Association, supports, with some conditions, the idea of the bank.

"Whether it's called a bank or something else, the entity needs to operate at arm's length from the federal government," said Atchison. "And it needs to be free of unrealistic timing goals so municipalities and provincial governments can plan better."

Jack Mintz, president's fellow in the school of public policy at the University of Calgary, is ambivalent about the CIB.

"There are often difficulties when governments get involved in economic development," Mintz said. "Projects that are sponsored by the bank would have both public and private owners and that could be problematic."

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