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Globe editorial: The infrastructure bank’s boondoggle breeding program

Of course the Canada Infrastructure Bank needs more thought. Of course it needs more study. Of course it needs more light shed on it before it starts doling out cash. And of course, as part of an omnibus budget bill, it received little of the above during its speedy, frictionless passage through the House of Commons.

Thankfully, many senators, they of the chamber of sober second thought, want to break the infrastructure bank out of the omnibus budget and give the proposal a thorough going over. It's a sad day when the unelected chamber understands responsible government better than the majority in the elected chamber, but we'll take whatever review of the infrastructure bank we can get. That's because this creature has the scent of boondoggle all over it.

In principle, the idea of greater private-sector involvement in public infrastructure is a sound one. There are many things that governments must do, but building hard assets, and in particular assets capable of paying for themselves, doesn't have to be one of them.

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Much of the country's major infrastructure has two distinguishing features: It is profitable or capable of being profitable, and it is owned by government. The former could make the latter unnecessary.

The infrastructure bank, into which Ottawa will sink $35-billion, is supposed to entice private investors into building new infrastructure, or buying existing infrastructure, by reducing those investors' costs. The bank seems to be about subsidizing the privatization of infrastructure that provincial, federal or municipal governments would otherwise have to build themselves.

So what kind of infrastructure are we talking about? That, dear reader, is an excellent question. And the Trudeau government has not offered much of an answer. That may be because the government is squeamish about the word privatization, even though it's the one raising the subject and pushing the agenda. Or it could be because the country's major infrastructure assets could be privatized, tomorrow, simply by putting up a "For Sale" sign – without the need for a subsidy-dispensing infrastructure bank.

Take Canada's airports. The world's pension funds would pay a pretty penny to own these profitable assets. Selling them off could bring in tens of billions of dollars. Ottawa might need a regulator to oversee the prices charged to customers by each of these newly privatized monopolies – but it wouldn't need an infrastructure bank. If it wants to sell, Ottawa merely needs to start accepting bids.

The same goes for a lot of other infrastructure that is either run at a profit, or capable of being so run. Want to privatize the highways? There's no need for an infrastructure bank to subsidize their sale, so long as they become toll roads. Ditto for bridges, tunnels, the electricity grid, power generation, water and sewer systems, and ports.

If privatization is what the Liberals are after, then an infrastructure bank – and the public subsidy, support or co-investment it would provide – is unnecessary in all of the above examples.

So, again, what's the infrastructure bank for?

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There is at least one major infrastructure area where public money may have to be involved, but where a hands-off public subsidy, combined with a private sector drive for efficiency, could generate real benefits for governments, investors and the public. We're talking about mass transit.

If public dollars were used to provide private developers with a small subsidy, but those private, profit-seeking developers were left to decide where to most profitably build transit lines, that would get politics out of transit. Which would be a very good thing, since it's politics that has made such a mess of transit. For example, Toronto has too much transit infrastructure in low-traffic areas, and too little in high-demand neighbourhoods, with politicians promising (hello, Scarborough subway) to make things even more unbalanced. No profit-seeking business would operate this way.

But the bank, as currently structured, won't be independent of the federal cabinet. It won't be a truly arm's-length investor, like the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. That means that its $35-billion risks becoming a slush fund for political priorities.

Earlier this month, during that extremely short debate over the Canada Infrastructure Bank in the Commons, Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi mused about how the bank could subsidize high-speed rail in Ontario and Alberta. Yes, thanks to the latest financial alchemy, the dream of every Liberal government since the 1960s is once again rising from the dead.

"We can undertake projects that some people think are unimaginable, like the rail link I talked about [between Calgary and Edmonton] or the high-speed link from Toronto to Windsor," Mr. Sohi told MPs. "How do we fund those projects? We fund them by engaging the private sector, by mobilizing the innovative thinking around that."

On Friday, by no coincidence, Ontario's Liberal government made headlines with a big announcement about accelerating its study of high-speed rail in the Toronto-Windsor corridor, a plan it too has been dreaming about for years. Queen's Park says the project, which can of course be achieved by engaging, mobilizing and subsidizing the private sector, could be built for anywhere between $55-million to $149-million per kilometre. So we're talking about a project costing, conservatively, $20-billion to $60-billion.

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High-speed rail, even at such a modest price, is not on the list of mass transit priorities in Southern Ontario, or anywhere else in Canada. Not even close. Queen's Park says high-speed rail could be carrying 10 million passengers a year by 2041. News flash: Toronto already has overcrowded, under-serviced streetcar routes carrying more than 10 million real, actual passengers, this year.

In its current form, the infrastructure bank does not look like a vehicle for getting politics out of infrastructure funding. Quite the contrary. No wonder the Liberals wanted to cut debate short.

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