High-speed rail lines in Alberta and Southern Ontario are the types of projects that could be funded through the Canada Infrastructure Bank, the federal Infrastructure Minister said during a day-long debate over the government’s $35-billion plan.

Amarjeet Sohi defended Ottawa’s approach on Thursday during a debate on the proposed bank triggered by an NDP motion that called for legislation creating the bank to be removed from the Liberals’ omnibus budget bill.

The government said it will oppose the NDP motion when it comes to a vote on Tuesday.

Mr. Sohi, a former Edmonton city councillor, said a long-discussed high-speed rail link between Calgary and Edmonton could be the type of project that private investors would be interested in funding with the support of Ottawa through the bank.

“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,” he said during the debate. “How do we fund those projects? We fund them by engaging the private sector, by mobilizing the innovative thinking around that. People who can utilize these projects are excited.”

The minister’s decision to float examples of specific projects the bank might fund came as he and the government are on the defensive over the proposed bank. Liberal ministers and MPs fielded questions all day related to a recent series of Globe and Mail reports about the bank. The Globe has reported that private investors played an extensive role behind the scenes over the past year to develop and promote the bank. On Thursday, The Globe reported that a KPMG study commissioned by Infrastructure Canada outlined a wide range of potential risks with the bank. The accounting firm urged Ottawa to be “extremely careful” in developing plans for the bank that will involve new user fees in areas such as roads and bridges.

Opposition MPs said this internal call for caution is at odds with the fact that the Liberal government is rushing its budget bill through Parliament, including the provisions that create the bank.

The Liberal-controlled committee on transportation, infrastructure and communities confirmed at a meeting Thursday that it will only hold one two-hour meeting on Tuesday to review the legislation that creates the $35-billion bank.

Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose said on Thursday that the bank is “a terrible idea” that should be abandoned.

“We have warned the Prime Minister that his infrastructure bank will be a cocktail of waste, duplication and bureaucracy, all to pad the bank accounts of the wealthy elite,” she said. “We do not expect him to listen to us, but he should at least listen to the experts he hired, who have told him the same thing.”

NDP MP Rachel Blaney said the government should listen to the warnings from its own report and take the time to study the issue carefully.

“The government has yet to make a compelling case for why it would be better to work with private investors seeking high returns when Ottawa has the ability to finance projects itself at a much lower cost,” she said.

Mr. Sohi said in an interview this week that the KPMG study was part of a broad consultation and that the government has struck the right balance based on that advice. He said on Thursday that the rail projects he mentioned were examples of the types of ventures that could be funded through the bank.

On the issue of high-speed rail, the Ontario government is expected to release a report this month from former federal transportation minister David Collenette, who was asked to study the potential for a high-speed rail link between Toronto and Windsor.

Separately, Toronto’s Pearson Airport authority has been circulating a plan that would see a partial privatization of the airport as a way of funding major new transit that would establish Pearson as a second transit hub in the region after Union Station. The plan includes the potential for a high-speed rail link.

The federal minister’s mention of high-speed rail – which is not currently on Ontario’s list of planned infrastructure projects – was welcomed by the Greater Toronto Airports Authority.

“Minister Sohi’s interest in a high-speed rail link between Toronto and Windsor is certainly positive,” GTAA vice-president Hillary Marshall said in an e-mail. “The Canada Infrastructure Bank could provide a means to deliver this vital connection between the region and the airport, which would provide passengers and workers in the airport employment zone with access to jobs and international destinations while helping to address significant congestion on Highway 401.”

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, May 11, 2017 7:41PM EDT
Last updated Thursday, May 11, 2017 8:45PM EDT