After four lean years, latest federal government did little for Brampton’s desperate infrastructure needs
When Justin Trudeau’s Liberals swept to victory in 2015, Brampton looked poised to reap the rewards after a red wave swelled across the city and delivered all its seats to the party in power.
The City’s mayor, Linda Jeffrey, was a former cabinet minister under Kathleen Wynne, whose provincial Liberals held sway in Queen’s Park: A Liberal mayor, premier and prime minister, with all five Brampton MPs representing the city as part of the governing party in Ottawa.
The stars were aligned, and Brampton seemed destined to cash in for its loyalty to the big red machine.
Billions of dollars in funding from the higher levels of government were desperately needed: to pay for a proposed LRT into downtown; the massive Riverwalk project to finally mitigate flood risks throughout the area and lift obstacles to development in the city centre; to finally get a large second full-service hospital in the city; to modernize the rapidly growing transit system; and to help fill the widening infrastructure gap that has caused much of Brampton’s critical infrastructure to fall into a dangerous state of disrepair.
Arguments for sending the city sizable infrastructure investments were overwhelming. Located near Toronto Pearson Airport and home to dozens of large immigrant communities, the rapidly growing city welcomes an outsized share of newcomers. Leaders inside City Hall were beginning to think about how to harness this growth for the future and move Brampton away from its recent history as an underfunded bedroom community that welcomes growth but gets few of the resources to support that growth.
A key election plank for the Liberals in 2015 was to add $60 billion of new funding over a decade to help cities replace crumbling infrastructure and build the projects necessary to get residents out of their cars and move municipalities into the future. That funding, added to the previous Stephen Harper government’s commitment of $128 billion, brought the total up to $188 billion over ten years.
With the political and ideological stars lined up, residents in Brampton prepared to benefit from significant investment.
Four years went by and Brampton found itself stagnating, having been almost completely ignored by the Liberals, who enjoyed a strong majority government to push its priorities through. Brampton, despite delivering five Liberal MPs, with a Liberal mayor, and under the authority of a Liberal provincial government, clearly was not one of the priorities of the federal Liberals.
A city that welcomes a larger per capita share of immigrants under Liberal policies than any other city in Canada, was once again forgotten when it came time to pay back the voters and local taxpayers propping up the federal government.
A growing list of desperately needed infrastructure projects remained unfunded and community centres built before the turn of the century continued to age, reaching worsening states of repair. It was the same story with underground infrastructure in dire need of an overhaul.
Over four years, the City only received $40.3 million for a variety of small projects. Data from the Investing In Canada Infrastructure Plan analyzed by The Pointer shows 18 projects to begin between 2015 and summer 2019 were funded, with many valued at only a few hundred thousand dollars.
The biggest federal payout came for an extension to Brampton Transit’s Sandalwood bus depot at $12.5 million to begin in spring 2017. An extension of the City’s Züm express bus route along Airport Road was offered $9.6 million to begin the same year.
Brampton received $3.5 million for an electric bus pilot starting in spring 2018.
(Image from Isaac Callan/The Pointer)
Challenged on their dismal record of under-delivering for the Flower City during the 2019 election campaign, Liberal incumbents laid the blame at the feet of City Hall. “Often times [proposals for federal funding] had become so bureaucratic that members of parliament weren’t even informed some times as to what proposals were being submitted,” Brampton North Liberal candidate Ruby Sahota said during the 2019 election campaign, blaming inertia at the municipal level for the delays.
“We have encouraged our councillors to speak to us about proposals which are being submitted because we want to be their champions on Parliament Hill,” she said. “We want to have the ear of ministers and say that their department has received something.”
After the Liberals won re-election as a minority government, Brampton’s fortunes changed, slightly.
Federal funds flowing to City Hall under the Investing in Canada Plan increased between the 42nd and 43rd parliaments. Despite sitting for half as long as the previous term of government, the Liberal minority from 2019 to 2021 pledged $166.5 million directly to the City of Brampton for 15 separate projects, according to data from the government’s website. That’s more than four times the amount committed between 2015 and 2019, but still just a tiny fraction of the per capita allotment Brampton should receive. These funds are not a handout from Ottawa, they represent the fair share of dollars that should be coming back to Brampton to directly benefit local taxpayers who contribute their required amount of federal income levies that are taken off their paycheques. If Ottawa does not distribute funds for a range of infrastructure based on population and need, residents in Brampton end up paying for things like transit, bridges, stormwater pipes and climate mitigation in other parts of Canada, while they are ignored.
Six projects have been delivered under the public transit stream over the past two years, three through a social infrastructure category, one as part of an effort to assist with disaster mitigation and five via a recently created COVID-19 fund.
A per-capita calculation of the Investing in Canada funding shows Brampton should receive around $3.5 billion over the ten-year window of the ICIP. In the first four years of the ICIP under the Liberals, they gave less than five percent of what the city’s per capita share over four years would have been (the $40.3 million represented a little more than one percent of what Brampton should receive on a per capita basis over the whole ten-year-window of the ICIP). The past two years have seen more dollars coming back, but federal income tax payers in Brampton are still getting dramatically less than the share they are paying into federal coffers.
The small increase was from a few particularly large federal investments. The largest is worth more than all the 2015 to 2019 federal infrastructure commitments combined. At $69.9 million in federal funding, a long awaited, critically needed transit storage and maintenance facility was the biggest federal return of funds to Brampton over the past two years.
Brampton’s floodplain mitigation strategy (known as the Riverwalk project) was also promised $38.9 million toward its total cost of $97.1 million (for basic work, which does not include many of the enhanced Riverwalk features the City has proposed to turn the downtown Etobicoke Creek corridor into a destination and major draw for investment in the city centre). The City’s transit service received $22.2 million for refurbishments, along with $9 million to replace buses between 2020 and 2021.
Brampton's Riverwalk project is critical to solving flooding issues in the downtown core.
(Rendering from the City of Brampton)
Many of the pledges by Ottawa are contingent on the City of Brampton coming up with its share of funding to move some of the major projects forward. This could be a challenge under Mayor Patrick Brown who refuses to explain how he will come up with Brampton’s required share for crucial projects under his property tax-freeze-policy, which has cut capital spending to the bone, while residents have actually seen many of their costs for utilities and other services dramatically increase despite Brown’s claims of keeping expenses down.
Beyond the federal funding commitments residents in Brampton might benefit from, the Region of Peel received around $20 million from Ottawa, while the Peel District School Board and Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board were given $53 million at the beginning of 2021 to help with COVID-19 costs.
A list on the federal government’s website suggests funds may come back to the city again soon. A decision has been made on requests by Brampton to help pay for new buses to grow its transit service every year from 2020 to 2023.
The City of Hamilton, which has a smaller population than Brampton, received $224.7 million in federal funding over the past two years. This includes $100 million for a transit storage and maintenance facility in the city.
Mississauga, with a larger population than Brampton and Hamilton, received just $73.7 million from the federal government over the past two years.
The City of Brampton’s wishlist put forward during the federal election sits at $1.3 billion. Presented at a recent press conference by Brown, it includes a request for $850 million to extend the Hurontario LRT to the downtown Brampton GO station (it’s unclear how Brown came up with the figure, as he has failed to get a council decision on the route for the proposed LRT and whether or not it will run on the surface or partially through a tunnel, which would cost as much as three times what a surface alignment would). Funding for a bus rapid transit route along Queen Street is another request.
Since his election in 2018, Brown has pushed three consecutive property tax freezes, limiting the City’s revenue and forcing the need for funding from other sources. Budgets under Brown have become significantly shorter and less informative (down from 509 pages in 2018 to 316 in 2021), with the document no longer including vital information on how many projects are unfunded.
Mismanagement under Brown, with no cohesive long-term capital plan even being offered under his leadership, on top of an ongoing corruption investigation into allegations of widespread misconduct inside City Hall under the mayor’s authoritarian style, have led to more chaos.
It’s what Sahota complained of two years ago, when she said the hands of Liberal MPs are tied, if City Hall can’t get its act together, while funding opportunities slip away.
The transit storage and maintenance facility, which is needed if the city plans to grow its operations in line with the rapidly expanding population, is an example of the need for federal dollars in lieu of municipal funds Brown has cut from the City budget. But higher levels of government usually demand a local share for these types of capital investments, a reality that seems lost on the mayor.
Brampton wants the Hurontario LRT extended north along Main Street.
(Image from Isaac Callan/The Pointer)
During the 2020 City budget process, $135 million earmarked for a bus storage and maintenance facility was removed from the document and pushed off to later years by Brown, even though staff made clear the piece of critical transit infrastructure was already years behind schedule. “There’s been a little bit of tinkering because we’re looking at electric buses and how that might change it, but we expect we’re going to have a partnership with the federal government for that," Brown said in February 2020.
The project, which was supposed to be completed by 2021, languished on the City’s unfunded list until the federal government stepped in during the spring, committing about $70 million. With an estimated overall cost of $174.8 million, the project’s opening in 2024 will only be made possible by large federal and provincial contributions, contingent on City Hall paying for its share of the project. With no capital dollars available thanks to Brown’s tax freezes, staff have said debt financing will be used, but Brown has not explained how this will be paid for in future budgets.
Local candidates, including Liberal incumbents, have not put forward specific platforms to address Brampton’s ongoing infrastructure shortfall, as Ottawa continues to ignore most of the city’s needs. Meanwhile, City Hall and the mayor face much of the blame for the failure to secure desperately needed infrastructure dollars to move Brampton forward.
With a municipal election and a provincial election next year, local voters have a unique opportunity to finally hold elected officials at all three levels of government accountable for the way Brampton taxpayers have been grossly shortchanged for decades.
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