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Federal Transport Minister to endorse Ottawa's light-rail project

Federal Transport Minister to endorse Ottawa's light-rail project

Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon will reiterate the Harper government's commitment to provide $200 million in funding for the City of Ottawa's light-rail transit plan.

By Andrew Mayeda

This was first published in Dose on Thursday, June 12, 2008.

OTTAWA - Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon will reiterate the Harper government's commitment to provide $200 million in funding for the City of Ottawa's light-rail transit plan in a speech here Friday.

It will be the first public confirmation of federal support since Ottawa city council approved a new $4 billion light-rail plan late last month.

The issue of federal support has been highly politicized since the 2006 municipal election, when then-Treasury Board president John Baird launched a review of the city's light-rail plan and announced he would withhold federal funding until after the election.

Critics accused Baird of interfering in the election to settle a political score with then-Ottawa mayor Bob Chiarelli, who was a Liberal in the Ontario legislature while Baird was a Progressive Conservative MPP.

But in a speech Friday at Ottawa City Hall to a summit of regional mayors, Cannon will reassure the city that the money is still on the table.

"The City of Ottawa is in the final stages of developing a new, long-term transit plan. Obviously, this is a major undertaking that will have an enormous impact on the entire National Capital Region, and will involve government at all levels," states an excerpt of the speech obtained by Canwest News Service.

"My colleague responsible for the Ottawa region - Minister John Baird - and I have always been supportive of transit solutions in Ottawa and are prepared to consider proposals. And $200 million was committed for transit projects in Ottawa."

The reassurances come as the Harper government looks to build support in Canada's cities, where the Conservatives had trouble winning votes during the last election.

One of the signature projects of former prime minister Paul Martin was his so-called New Deal for cities, which offered to transfer a portion of the federal gas tax to municipalities. The $200 million for public transit in Ottawa was originally promised by Martin's government in 2004.

In his speech, Cannon will tout a $33 billion mega-fund set up last year, to finance a range of infrastructure projects, from public transit to highways and bridges.

He also will note that the Harper government fixed the gas-tax transfer at $2 billion annually in the last federal budget.

The Opposition Liberals have accused the Conservatives of lacking vision and simply repackaging Liberal programs. However, Cannon will assail the Liberals' recently announced plans to invest any federal surpluses above a "contingency reserve" in infrastructure.

Cannon will question whether the Liberals will invest any money in infrastructure without a significant federal surplus. By contrast, the government's plan offers "long-term, predictable funding," he will argue.

Nevertheless, the Tories' spending promises occasionally have given them local headaches.

In March last year, Harper stood in front of a TTC bus in Toronto to announce nearly $1 billion in funding for the Greater Toronto Area. But this spring, Toronto Transit Commission officials have complained that the federal money has been slow to arrive. Federal officials have replied that the money will flow once construction begins.

The City of Ottawa must eventually submit a proposal to the federal government explaining how the $200 million will be used. City council must first identify its "priority" transit projects, which is expected to happen in the fall, deputy city manager Nancy Schepers said Thursday.