Canadian Consulting Engineer

Comment: The Worst Of Times? Perhaps Not

December 1, 2008
By Bronwen Parsons

Watching our pension funds deflate and our home values flounder, we can't help but view the future with trepidation.

Watching our pension funds deflate and our home values flounder, we can’t help but view the future with trepidation.

Yet consulting engineers have less cause for worry than those working in other industries. Suddenly governments have discovered the benefits of investing in construction projects as an economic stimulus. At the first ministers’ meeting in November, Prime Minister Stephen Harper indicated that the federal government would work with the provinces to accelerate infrastructure spending. That intent was echoed — though in muted form — in the Throne Speech a few weeks later.

Engineering companies that work overseas will be setting their sights on countries like China, which in reaction to the global financial crisis has announced a $586 billion spending package to include building railways, roads, airports, etc.

Even in Alberta, where planned oil sands expansions have been halted, commentators are saying this could be a good thing as it will enable Edmonton and other municipalities to catch up on building housing and infrastructure.

Organizations such as the Association of Canadian Engineering Companies and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities are naturally cheering on any signs of governments pumping more money into infrastructure. It’s a platform ACEC has been promoting for years.

Let’s be frank: more money for roads and treatment plants means more money for engineering businesses. But also there is an enormous and valid concern over the deteriorating state of our roads, bridges, waterworks, etc., much of which dates from the expansionist and confident 1960s. The dangers of neglecting infrastructure were highlighted after the tragedy in Laval near Montreal when an overpass built in the 1960s collapsed.

If governments are going to spend their way out of recession, then at least spending on infrastructure will leave us with something tangible at the end, something with long term and myriad benefits. On November 10, Jeff Morrison, president of ACEC, summed up the benefits of infrastructure investment as: “the key to improving quality of life, protecting public safety, increasing economic competitiveness, and reducing our environmental footprint.”

It will be interesting to see whether governments continue to pursue private partners to invest in these projects. Will the financial crisis mean that the large construction companies and investors will be staying away from the table? Even before the credit crunch hit, it was noticeable how few companies seem to have enough resources to compete in the high P3 stakes. I receive e-mails from Infrastructure Ontario with project shortlists, and it seems the same company names come up again and again in different consortia.

The other big challenge is actually getting the big infrastructure projects off the ground. The Greater Toronto Region’s transportation agency Metrolinx launched a vast plan for new transit connections woven across the metropolis in September. The elephant in the room — or rather blocking the rail tracks — is the question of whether the citizens and local communities affected will ever allow these projects to proceed. Perhaps the promise of engineering and construction jobs will help ease their passage.


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