Baloney Meter: which government has ‘invested’ the most in transit?

Has Trudeau 'invested' the most in transit?

OTTAWA — “No government in the history of Canada has invested as much in public transit as we have.” — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

Pushed on Friday about why his government did away with a tax credit for transit passes, the prime minister described it as costly and ineffective. The Liberal government’s multibillion-dollar infrastructure program would be different, he promised.

The Liberals are banking that spending more than $28 billion on the public transit stream of their infrastructure program will clear clogged highways and allow people to move around the country’s biggest cities much more easily.

Trudeau was at a GO Transit station outside Toronto, promoting transit spending measures in the federal budget, when he made his brazen statement about how much his government has spent on public transit.

Is he right?

Spoiler alert: The Canadian Press Baloney Meter is a dispassionate examination of political statements culminating in a ranking of accuracy on a scale of “no baloney” to “full of baloney” (complete methodology below).

This one earns a rating of “a little baloney” — the statement is mostly accurate, but more information is required. Here’s why.

THE FACTS

Trudeau was referring to his government’s plan to spend $28.7 billion over 11 years on the public transit portion of the infrastructure program. The spending started last year and will run until fiscal year 2027-28.

But spending is not the same as investing. Spending begins as money reflected in the government’s long-term spending projections, which is then allocated to programs, then to projects within those programs, before finally being spent on projects.

Provinces, territories and cities don’t get those dollars until project proponents submit receipts for reimbursement, which means money budgeted by one government can be spent by a subsequent government. Last week’s announcement was one example: The $1.8 billion for the GO Transit project around the Greater Toronto Area came from a program set up by the Harper Conservatives four years ago.

The federal government’s open data portal identifies projects labelled as “public transit” dating back to 2004. Those numbers show the Trudeau government has allocated almost $4 billion to “public transit” projects, outpacing Harper’s government, which allocated more than $3.3 billion while in office.

Those numbers don’t reflect dollars spent, but rather contributions of federal funding made from the date a project received approval.

In this case, last week’s $1.8 billion put Trudeau ahead of Stephen Harper in public transit “investments.”

THE EXPERTS

Trudeau’s comments may hold true over the last 20 years or so, but not over the last century, said Warren Mabee, an associate professor of geography and policy studies from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

Various levels of government — municipal, regional, provincial and federal — went on a transit spending spree that started in earnest in the 1950s and tailed off by the 1980s, Mabee noted.

Also, a lot depends on one’s definition of “investment”: For Mabee, it means money spent, which, according to the numbers put forward by the parliamentary budget officer, would be significantly less than the billions attributed to Trudeau.

Officials in Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi’s office say they consider money “invested” when it has been allocated, rather than spent.

Theoretically, no lower level of government could outspend the federal government given Ottawa’s spending power, said Jennifer Robson, an assistant professor of policy management at Carleton University in Ottawa.

However, local governments are able to argue that “investment” at the local level includes ongoing maintenance and operating costs that aren’t eligible for federal funding, Robson said.

Another issue that further clouds comparisons: provinces and cities own the vast majority of infrastructure in Canada and can spread — or “amortize” — the cost of building it over decades, making it look like they are spending comparatively less than the federal government, said Alexandre Laurin, director of research at the C.D. Howe Institute.

THE VERDICT

The prime minister is right in one sense when he talks about investing more than other governments. But in the absence of other details, the statement isn’t completely baloney-free.

Comparing spending by different levels of government isn’t easy. Nor is it easy to compare spending between eras.

But for argument’s sake, let’s take a look at one transportation project that moved people and goods across the country: The Intercolonial Railway.

The 1872 budget noted that in the five years since Confederation, Sir John A. Macdonald’s federal government spent $7,258,698 on the rail line, including in acquiring the Northwest Territories.

Including inflation, that translates roughly to $139.7 billion in today’s dollars, or almost $35 billion annually, putting Sir John A. at the top of the spending heap.

METHODOLOGY

The Baloney Meter is a project of The Canadian Press that examines the level of accuracy in statements made by politicians. Each claim is researched and assigned a rating based on the following scale:

No baloney— the statement is completely accurate

A little baloney— the statement is mostly accurate but more information is required

Some baloney— the statement is partly accurate but important details are missing

A lot of baloney— the statement is mostly inaccurate but contains elements of truth

Full of baloney— the statement is completely inaccurate

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

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