Should MSI funding be used for Edmonton’s downtown arena?

Even if you’re optimistic and think the Katz Group and the City can resolve their current differences, let’s not forget that the arena project is short at least $100 million. Under the current agreement, that amount is slated to come from “other orders of government” such as the province. Over the last year or so, various ministers have stated that the province will not be providing any new funding for the arena. In May, Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths said:

“The province is not going to write a separate cheque for a particular project. We provide MSI funding for every municipality in the province, which is $896 million this year. We have proposed that’s going to increase. The reason why we do so is municipalities can choose what their priorities are.”

While the downtown arena project would certainly be eligible under the Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI), I have long wondered if it would really make sense to use our limited funding for that purpose. How much MSI funding do we have? What have we already spent? Can we really count on an increase? These are some of the question I’ll explore below.

What is the Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI)?

MSI is a way for the province to provide cities, towns, and other municipalities in the province with funding for infrastructure projects. From the MSI website:

In 2007, the $11.3 billion MSI program was announced to provide predictable, sustainable funding for our province’s municipal infrastructure projects to keep our municipalities strong.

The objectives of the program are:

  • To work in partnership with municipalities to manage growth pressures;
  • To provide municipalities with sustainable funding; and
  • To support infrastructure needs.

All eligible municipalities in the province receive an amount each year that is calculated based on the following formula:

  • 48% is allocated on a per capita basis;
  • 48% is allocated based on education property tax requisitions;
  • 4% is allocated based on kilometers of local roads.

A wide range of municipal projects are eligible for MSI funding, which means that each municipality can decide where the money is best spent.

How much MSI funding will the City of Edmonton receive?

Edmonton is slated to receive a total of $2.1 billion by the end of 2021. From 2007 through 2011, we received about $567 million. In order to take advantage of favorable economic conditions, Council also decided to fast-track another $250 million or so, which means we have used roughly $850 million in MSI funding already. This chart shows the amount of funding per year (with FT designating the fast-tracked amount):

That means we have roughly $1.3 billion still to come over the next ten years. The projected amounts for 2012-2021 take into consideration repayments on the fast-tracked amount. The City’s fast-tracking strategy requires an annual repayment of $57 million, including interest for five years, reducing the amount of MSI available in 2012-2016 by $285 million.

What have we spent our funding on so far?

The MSI website provides a list of accepted projects by year for each municipality in PDF. I extracted the data for Edmonton, and organized it in a spreadsheet. Based on the description, I categorized each project as either “new” or “existing” to indicate whether it was for a new asset or to rehabilitate/upgrade/repair an existing one. I also assigned each project a category such as “Parks” or “Transit”. Here’s what we have spent per year:

The total spent is roughly $850 million. The big jump in 2009 was the fast-tracked funding, which allowed us to take advantage of lower construction costs.

Here’s the breakdown of new vs. existing:

As you can see, roughly 53% of our MSI funding has been spent on “new” projects.

Here’s the breakdown by category:

The bulk of our MSI funding has been spent on transit and roads. Parks and recreation facilities are the only other two categories that have received more than $100 million in funding.

A total of 82 capital projects were listed, with an average project cost of $9.9 million. No project has cost more than $100 million. The largest project we have constructed so far was the new Centennial Garage in southwest Edmonton, which had a total project cost of $99 million ($89.3 million of which came from MSI). It would be fair to call that project an anomaly however – only one other project, to rehabilitate several roads for $61 million, came with a price tag greater than $40 million.

Can we count on an MSI increase in the future?

MSI funding has always been tied to the economy. The amount allocated to municipalities over the first five years of the program was reduced due to weaker than anticipated revenues. The City of Edmonton had expected to receive $802 million over the 2007-2011 period, about $235 million more than the $567 million it ended up receiving. That does not bode well for an increase in the future.

Both Calgary and Edmonton have been pushing for an improved funding framework with the commitment to develop a big city charter. The outcome of that initiative, slated to be considered by the Legislature in the spring, could impact the way Edmonton receives funding from the province.

Should we use MSI funding for the arena?

According to the City, the average age of Edmonton’s infrastructure assets is 30 years. At the end of 2011, more than 150 neighbourhoods required renewal. An average annual reinvestment of $400 million over the next three years, plus an average annual reinvestment of $450 million over the 2015-2021 period, is the minimum amount of funding required to renew Edmonton’s existing infrastructure to achieve a reasonable state of repair. This is a big challenge, and MSI funding provides only a piece of the pie.

As shown above, our MSI spend has been more or less equally split between new projects and upgrades or rehabilitation of existing assets. A total of $87.5 million was spent on seven new recreation facilities (either brand new, or additions to existing) from 2007 through 2011. Would we have rather spent all of that on the arena? A number of new projects would need to be postponed if funding was allocated instead to the arena. A total of $384.8 million was approved by Council for recreation and cultural projects in the 2012-2014 Capital Budget.

In a poll earlier this year, two-thirds of Edmontonians opposed provincial funding going toward the new arena. An equal number supported fast-tracking the southeast LRT line to Mill Woods. It would seem that the use of MSI funding thus far more or less aligns with the desires of Edmontonians, with the largest share going toward transit projects (though not all of that was LRT-related).

This decision would ultimately need to be made by City Council, and as we approach an election next year, I’m not sure many councillors would be willing to take money away from important neighbourhood renewal projects or new facilities like libraries and parks for the arena.

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