Second Safe Restart Agreement is needed early in 2021, says RCCAO interim executive director
By Grant Cameron
The federal and provincial governments are to be commended for working on a Safe Restart Agreement in 2020, but municipalities are still facing a financial crunch and a second deal is critical for this year.
That was one of the messages conveyed by RCCAO interim executive director Nadia Todorova during a virtual panel discussion at a session on infrastructure and construction at the 2021 Ontario Good Roads Association (OGRA) Conference.
“I really do want to commend both the federal and provincial governments in terms of really working in partnership to get that agreement out the door because it really was essential for a lot of municipalities to start getting their house in order for 2020,” she said during remarks at the event. “However, in a case of déjà vu, here we are in 2021 and the same sort of issues exist as in 2020.”
Todorova was on a panel that included Bruce Matthews, executive director of the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies (ACEC) – Ontario, and Mark Romoff, president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships. OGRA executive director Scott Butler was moderator and Ontario Infrastructure Minister Laurie Scott provided the keynote address at the session.
Todorova said that municipalities are still facing a lot of the same operating pressures as last year due to COVID-19 and the federal government must come to the table with another Safe Restart Agreement or the construction industry will be in trouble as municipalities will have to decrease spending.
“If the federal government is not able to come to the table, if that assistance doesn’t come, that would have disastrous consequences for the construction industry, for the recovery of Ontario’s economy and to address the infrastructure deficit.”
The issue is more pronounced for large municipalities that have transit systems because revenue has declined and they still have the operating costs, she said.
“What that has resulted in is an incredible amount of operating pressure and one of the only ways to really address that is by taking money from their capital funds to address those operating pressures.”
Todorova said research done for RCCAO indicates that 41,000 construction jobs in Ontario are at risk if the issue is not addressed. The Financial Accountability Office of Ontario released statistics that show 25,000 construction jobs were lost last year, which is a 4.7-per-cent contraction from 2019. She also noted that in January, Canada’s construction sector lost more than 45,000 jobs.
“I think those very detrimental job losses will continue if the feds don’t come to the table. But I think the good news is the federal government definitely understands the pressures, they understand the problem, and I think that they are definitely looking at different ways that they can help.”
The cheque doesn’t have to be written right away, noted Todorova, but providing assurances that money will be coming would go a long way as municipalities are now in the throes of budget discussions.
“That kind of conversation really has to happen early on in 2021 because, as we all know, municipalities are working on their budgets right now,” she said. “They have to pass balanced budgets and if they don’t have those assurances it’s really going to impact the state-of-good-repair projects, that critical infrastructure work. The quality of life of Ontarians really is on the line.”
Other panelists expressed optimism that funding will flow.
Matthews said the uncertainty of the pandemic is problematic, but some tenders are still coming forward and there are projects in the pipe.
Everyone’s chomping at the bit to move forward.”
A survey of ACEC members last fall indicated that roughly 30 per cent indicated there was less work while half of respondents said there was no substantial change.
Romoff said he’s a perennial optimist and the federal government seems to be committed to an infrastructure plan.
In the keynote address at the session, Minister Scott said the government’s priority during the pandemic has been to keep everyone safe, but Ontario has still been able to continue building infrastructure.
“We continue to build,” she said. “We know it hasn’t been easy, but we’ve kept the shovels moving.
“Coming out of COVID we’re going to keep moving forward like never before.”
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