The Liberal government’s final budget of its mandate puts a focus on getting municipal infrastructure projects off the ground, including a controversial plan for a new interprovincial crossing in Ottawa.
Tuesday's federal budget announced a one-time top-up to the federal gas-tax fund, which sends money directly to municipalities each year to help cover the costs of work on roads, bridges, water systems and other local infrastructure needs.
The extra funding doubles the transfer to cities this fiscal year, adding an additional $56.7 million in funding for Ottawa this year, according to a statement from Mayor Jim Watson in which he applauded the move.
One specific project pegged in the Liberals’ fiscal plan is a replacement for the aging Alexandra Bridge between Ottawa and Gatineau. The budget document calls on the National Capital Commission to refresh existing studies and develop a long-term crossing plan between the Ontario and Quebec sides of the Ottawa River. No specific funding or timeline was placed on Alexandra Bridge project.
The renewed attention on another interprovincial crossing irked Watson, who told multiple media outlets Tuesday that he felt there were better uses for federal money to improve linkages between Ottawa and Gatineau, such as funding eventual light-rail connections. The budget also allocates $80.4 million over 10 years to maintain other interprovincial bridges in the National Capital Region.
Roughly $1 billion in spending on energy-efficiency projects will flow to cities through funds managed by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. The federation's president, Mayor Vicki-May Hamm of Magog, Que., said the measures are a direct response to pleas from cities to modernize their relationship with the feds and not rely solely on the provincial governments that ultimately control them.
Elsewhere in the budget, Watson said he was pleased with federal spending slated for affordable housing.
The feds propose to expand the Rental Construction Financing Initiative by an additional $10 billion over 10 years. Claridge Homes has already tapped this fund to help finance the construction of a 27-storey, 227-unit rental apartment building in Ottawa’s downtown.
Ottawa businesses concerned about talent shortages in the region may find some solace in a focus on skills training in the budget. One Liberal proposal would provide a $250 refundable tax credit, accumulating over time, to allow workers to offset the costs of learning new job skills.
The plan, to cost $710 million over the next five years, would be available to Canadian workers earning between $10,000 and about $150,000 a year.
The budget document says the credit is expected to launch in late 2020 – a year after this fall's federal election – and will apply against the cost of programs at eligible universities, colleges and training institutions.
The government also plans to create a new employment-insurance benefit for those who take time off from work to attend a training program, up to a maximum of 55 per cent of earnings. That program carries a price tag of $1.04 billion over five years.
Ottawa business leaders have also previously decried a lack of support for companies, especially in the city’s prominent tech sector, as they scale up. This year’s budget looks to improve support available to firms through the government’s SR&ED credits: by removing the current income threshold that cut growing companies off from the enhanced version of the credit, the government says it can help “take businesses to the next level.”
The federal budget also puts money aside to aid public servants affected by the mismanaged Phoenix pay system. The fiscal blueprint assigns $21.7 million in the near term to alleviate administrative pressure and $523.5 million over five years to resolve outstanding payment errors.
– With files from Canadian Press