TORONTO - Canada's big city mayors met on Thursday hoping to leverage a looming federal election into billions of dollars worth of commitments from Ottawa for transit, affordable housing and other big-money projects.
The 18 mayors made no bones about their awareness that voters are set to go the polls sometime before November as they discussed what they estimated to be a $120-billion infrastructure shortfall.
"Yeah, it's an election year, and the parties that get this right are the parties that are going to do very well," said Calgary's Naheed Nenshi.
"So this is exactly the time for citizens and for their mayors to be talking to government and saying, 'What exactly are you willing to do?'"
While the politically diverse mayors would not as a group be looking to endorse any particular party, they weren't shy about wanting to see their needs attended to.
Big cities account for about two-thirds of the country's population, they noted, but more importantly, perhaps, nearly one half of the country's federal ridings — 142 seats — are in large urban centres.
Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper found his majority government in large cities and Ottawa must recognize them as the real drivers of job creation and the country's economy, the mayors said.
A spokeswoman for Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel said the government has already dedicated $75 billion to investing in public infrastructure over the next decade.
"Cities don't have to wait for a federal election to access billions of dollars of infrastructure investments," Michèle-Jamali Paquette said in an email.
The mayors said that they need predictable, stable funding from senior governments to allow them to make longer-term spending plans.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, chairman of the meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, called it crucial for the competing federal parties to come up with an urban agenda.
"They have to speak to why cities matter and have to have platforms that address the key needs," Robertson said.
"The next prime minister of Canada is going to be the one who recognizes the needs of cities."
One of eight rookie mayors, Toronto's John Tory, said big cities all face similar infrastructure problems and simply lack the means to deal with them without the help of the federal and provincial governments.
"While the agendas differ in terms of the scale of the problems and exactly the way in which we will solve them, the challenges are the same," Tory said.
The mayors had yet to hammer out the exact nature of their "collective ask" from Ottawa, but said it would have to be enough for transit and transportation to ease "crippling" traffic congestion.
Nenshi made the eye-popping scale of the problem clear, estimating Calgary alone is short about $17 billion over the coming decade.
"No one is saying, 'Hey, federal government, write a cheque for this hundreds of billions of dollars in unfunded infrastructure," Nenshi said. "But what we are saying is let's talk about creating predictable, stable forms of income."
The mayors also said they weren't looking for new housing money in the coming federal budget — just a commitment to protect current allocations — and said they wanted previously promised infrastructure money to flow more quickly.