The P.E.I. government tabled the largest capital budget in Island history in the legislature Wednesday, pledging to spend $308 million in the next fiscal year on roads, schools and new government-owned housing units.
"This is a bold capital budget that addresses the challenges Islanders are facing," said Finance Minister Mark McLane in a media briefing before his budget was released.
Included in the budget was a five-year plan with a commitment to spend $1.16 billion on infrastructure projects.
That includes a commitment to spend $100 million over the next five years to build an additional 365 publicly-owned housing units. Currently the province has 475 public housing units for families and 1,160 for seniors, with rent geared to income.
The King government had previously committed to adding 100 public housing units through a combination of new builds and buying up existing stock. The new commitment pushes that number up to 465.
P.E.I. is in the midst of a housing crisis, with increased rental costs one of the factors fuelling the province's inflation rate, which for more than a year has been the highest in the country.
The availability of rental units has also been an issue. The vacancy rate in the province in 2021 was 1.5 per cent. In recent years it's dropped as low as 0.3 per cent.
Incentives for privately-built units
Building more publicly-owned affordable housing is part of a new plan being developed under Housing Minister Matthew MacKay, which includes 1,400 additional housing units over 14 months.
The other units are supposed to be private units built with new government incentives, which have yet to be announced. The influx of housing should push P.E.I.'s vacancy rate up to four per cent, said MacKay.
The province is also pledging to spend $3.6 million in the coming fiscal year on repairs to government housing, with the goal of eventually having electrical generators in all government seniors' housing facilities. There was no timeline included in budget documents as to when that work will be complete.
Some government seniors' facilities were without power for up to 12 days after post-tropical storm Fiona knocked out power to the entire province in late September.
Spending on French schools
The King government also said it will build a new school in Evangeline where École Évangéline was severely damaged by Fiona.
The French Language School Board has been asking for a new school there for years, with the commitment from government flip-flopping between a new build or renovations.
The new capital plan sets aside $41 million over five years for that project, with the school expected to open in September 2026.
Government will accelerate a planned expansion of another French school, Francoise Buote in Charlottetown, with a $12-million build slated to begin next year.
A tender is expected to be issued soon for design of a new high school in Stratford, a project with a $51.5-million price tag with the school slated to open in September 2025. A replacement for Sherwood School is slated to be ready for students in Sept. 2024, with a total project cost of $35 million.
Rising costs of materials and labour have been impacting overall project costs, officials said.
The province has committed an additional $8 million to upgrading ventilation systems in schools and other public buildings.
Of the 11 schools that were without mechanical ventilation systems at the start of this year, five received upgrades over the summer. The remaining six are to have systems added next year.
The province also promised ventilation upgrades for the Provincial Correctional Centre, Souris Hospital, Wedgewood Manor, Beach Grove Home and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
The province said it will spend $174 million in the next five years building a new mental health campus, including a replacement for Hillsborough Hospital, the province's main psychiatric facility.
Construction of that campus is expected to be "substantially complete" by the end of 2026.
As in previous capital budgets, the biggest line item in the new document is for paving and bridge construction.
The province is pledging $80 million in capital funding for the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure in the new budget — more than a quarter of the total — including $51 million for highways and bridges.
Spending on roads and bridges has also consistently come in well over budget, by about $20 million in each of the last two years.
The new capital plan also includes $3.5 million over the next two years to build 16 new fast-charging stations for electric vehicles. It also adds an additional $11 million to speed up the electrification of the province's school bus fleet, which the province says should be completed by 2030.