Brian Mason, Alberta’s new minister of infrastructure and transportation, at his office in the legislature building. Photo: Topher Seguin

Alberta's new infrastructure minister ready to play catch-up on capital projects

Brian Mason is brimming with fun facts about Alberta’s government. Did you know that the ceremonial mace carried into the assembly at the start of each legislative session cannot be touched by human hands? Anyone who carries it must wear white gloves. And the reason it serves as symbol of power? He can’t be certain, but perhaps it’s because knights used maces to bash in the heads of recalcitrant peasants back in ye olden times. 

“Just my little class-based analysis,” he chuckles.

Mason probably won’t be asked to conduct tours of the legislature building anytime soon, although as the assembly’s longest-serving current member he surely must have some great stories to tell. No, he will probably be too busy with one of his many roles in Alberta’s new NDP administration. In addition to serving as government house leader, he also heads two high-profile ministries, infrastructure and transportation.

It’s hard to imagine a Progressive Conservative minister looking at Alberta’s mace and contemplating what it might have meant to a medieval peasant. But years spent as part of the province’s smallest opposition party have given Mason an appreciation of the underdog’s perspective. He joined the legislature in 2000 and spent a decade leading the NDP through some of its leanest years before being succeeded by Rachel Notley in 2014. One unpredictable election later, and the stalwart opposition critic has become the most experienced presence in a fresh-faced administration. The former city bus driver has taken the long route to power.

Alberta Construction Magazine assistant editor Joseph Caouette interviewed Mason in late July to learn more about Mason’s plans to tackle the province’s daunting infrastructure challenges.

ACM: The government is planning to release an infrastructure sunshine list around the same time as the fall budget. What prompted this decision?

Mason: It had been quite a controversial issue for sometime. Nobody knew which projects the government was going to fund and which ones they weren’t. Particularly in the by-elections that preceded the general election, there was a sense that one of the ministers made use of his position in order to advance a project in his own constituency to further his own election chances. That produced quite a backlash, and so we took the position that we should as much as possible make sure there is objective criteria used to establish the priority list, and that should be public.

ACM: Your government is also bringing in David Dodge to help formulate a capital plan. Why did you reach out to him?

Mason: He’s a distinguished Canadian. He was the governor of the Bank of Canada. He was a deputy minister in the federal government, and he’s done similar work for the Government of Ontario as well. He brings a real expertise, and he has a real interest in how government can use opportunities that might be created in the markets—if there’s extra capacity, if engineering firms don’t have enough work, and construction companies are having to lay off people and there are workers that are available, and at the same time, if money is at a very low price.

The extra capacity in the economy is a good time for the government to make investments in infrastructure. It’s not competing with public sector demands, which has been the problem in the past with what the previous government was doing. They would make their major spends on infrastructure at the same time that the economy was very hot, so they were competing with private industry and paying a premium for what they got done. That’s not smart in our view.

ACM: The other side of this would be that when the market is hot, the government would—

Mason: —back off. We back off. I think that’s the idea. There’s obviously going to be infrastructure spending even when the economy’s doing very well, but maybe we can increase it a bit [during the downturn] and keep people working and build infrastructure at a lower cost. Those are two very excellent goals that I think most Albertans would support.

ACM: How do you balance the need to borrow funds in order to maintain and build the province with the need to be mindful of our revenue challenges?

Mason: The normal way to finance infrastructure is to borrow. You spread the cost of a 30-year project over 30 years, so that the people right now don’t have to pay all of the cost. All municipalities finance their infrastructure in that way, and it is, in my view, an appropriate way to develop infrastructure. What you need to do is have a plan that you can manage the debt and repay it in an orderly fashion. You need to have the budget to do that. You can’t borrow more than you can repay, but it makes sense to borrow a little more when interest rates are as low as they are. And if the investments actually help improve the economy, then the debt is more manageable.

ACM: In general, would you say there’s an infrastructure deficit in Alberta?

Mason: Very much so. I have been dealing in the last month or so with many municipal officials. A lot of mayors have been coming to me, and they have requirements for roadway improvements, interchanges and wastewater treatment plants. There’s just a tremendous backlog of infrastructure needs, and all of them are legitimate.

The problem is you can’t fund them all, and you can’t fund them all right now. It’s not that these requests are frivolous or unnecessary. Every one of them is something that’s quite badly needed. The difficulty is that you’ve got to set priorities, and you’ve got to phase in construction of these projects so that you get the most critical ones done as soon as you can. I would like to say yes to every mayor that comes to me for financial assistance in building these projects, but you just can’t.

ACM: In the months leading up to the election, the NDP raised concerns about the condition of the province’s hospitals. Do you have a better sense of the scope of that issue now that you’re in government?

Mason: I can’t give you a good comprehensive statement, but I will say that one of the mistakes that the previous government made was to announce projects before they had been properly studied and scoped out. They would announce that they’re going to build a hospital and it’s going to be $900 million. People would have to go and plan a $900-million hospital instead of assessing the needs, scoping out a project, getting some rough costs and then telling the public they’re going to go ahead with the project and here’s what it’s going to cost.

They’ve been working backwards by reverse engineering based on a cost that’s been thrown out by a politician. It’s created some dramatic problems in certain places with a number of hospitals with real cost overruns and projects that are too big for what the needs actually are.

ACM: In the past, the NDP has been critical of public-private partnerships [P3s]. Is this something that you will be revisiting?

Mason: I asked my departments to review the use of P3s. I’ve not been convinced that they’re cheaper in the long run, even if they’re relatively well done. There’s no final policy with respect to that, but I think it’s probably fair to say that we’re not in favour of using P3s as a major way to construct infrastructure.

There are several projects that are so far down the road that it makes sense to continue as a P3 [such as the southwest Calgary ring road]. Going forward, I can’t say that they are something this government would favour.

ACM: Industry has talked about the need for stable infrastructure spending year over year. Is that something you’ve been looking at?

Mason: Obviously if you’re trying to avoid a lot of pro-cyclical expenditures and increase your investment at times when money’s cheaper and there’s surplus capacity in the economy, it’s not stable. You’re increasing it at those times. But should it go up and down like a yo-yo? No, I think you need a steady minimum investment year over year, and at certain periods of time it would make sense to increase that.

ACM: What has been preventing us from achieving that stability then?

Mason: For a long time, my personal view has been that the [Ralph] Klein government was so focused on paying off the debt that they did so at the expense of program expenditures, including capital maintenance and the deferring of important infrastructure projects. That didn’t so much as eliminate the debt as transfer it from a financial debt into an infrastructure debt. It would be like paying down your mortgage as quickly as you can and not fixing the roof on the house. It’s penny-wise and pound foolish.

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