Feds approve 6,000 infrastructure projects, could mean spring job surge

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OTTAWA - The federal government says it has finished deciding who gets what under key parts of its massive stimulus program in a tidal wave of approvals that should propel a spring job surge.
Officials at Infrastructure Canada say more than 6000 stimulus projects have been approved in their department in the past year, and $9.4 billion has been committed to stimulus spending by their department alone. That jumps to $27 billion including funding from other levels of government.
The rush of approvals means there will likely be a huge crush of work kicking into high gear this spring and summer, even as the economic recovery takes hold.
"I think 2010 will be a record year for public infrastructure," Infrastructure Minister John Baird in an interview, pointing specifically to public transit, roads, bridges and water treatment.
But whether or not contractors can effectively handle the flood of work remains a question.
"Will we get value, or will we get a big mess?" asked Liberal critic Gerard Kennedy.
He argued that Baird needlessly politicized the handing out of infrastructure money to such an extent that it slowed the flow of stimulus at a time when the economy needed it most. Now, municipalities are left scrambling to spend it all at once, before the flow of federal cash comes to a sudden halt a year from now.
"The jury is out on whether any of these things worked," Kennedy said.
Ottawa had set a deadline for the end of last month for provinces and municipalities to get their paperwork in order, and to apply for an array of federal programs meant to help the economy recover from recession.
Despite some complaining that there wasn't enough time, city and provincial governments were able to meet the deadline, senior government officials said. Even the Quebec and B.C. governments were able to overcome some stumbling blocks and line up matching funding for many of the federal programs, officials said
"We expect 2010 to be one of the busiest construction seasons on record for municipal infrastructure projects. But the tap won't be turned on all at once," said Berry Vrbanovic, a city councillor in Kitchener, Ont., and a vice-president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
Since the winter was mild this year, cities have been able to get a head-start on preparation for the busy spring building season, he explained.
In Ottawa's eyes, the stimulus spending was so efficient and successful that the program should provide a model of sorts for government support in the future.
The model puts the federal government in charge of asking for proposals from municipalities and provinces, setting broad parameters and making the final decision on where the money should go. But the application process is short and sweet. And the actual work and monitoring of standards is done by other levels of government.
"We stopped micro-managing the provinces and the municipalities," Baird said.
In the past, it has taken months or years for Ottawa to come up with programs that the provinces and municipalities could agree to ≠≠≠≠- leaving projects languishing under construction for long periods of time. Baird pointed to work on the Ottawa Convention Centre, which was announced in 2002, but work is just going ahead now.
With the one-page application for municipalities, the end of overlapping environmental assessments, and good co-operation among the various governments, Ottawa has been able to approve and spend infrastructure at record speed, Baird said.
He said he plans to meet with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in the coming weeks to figure out how best to apply the stimulus model on an ongoing basis.
But Baird's approach to stimulus spending is far from universally accepted. The parliamentary budget officer has bemoaned the lack of information on job creation and the lack of economic strategy in disbursing the money. Observers, including opposition critics, have frequently complained about the lack of transparency in the process.
Investigations by The Canadian Press and other media have found that the funding has favoured Conservative ridings, at the expense of areas with high unemployment.
And some city mayors are worried that when the federal government cuts off its funding in March 2011, they'll be left paying huge amounts for construction that has inadvertently fallen behind schedule.
The construction sector was hit hard by the recession. At the peak of the recession in July 2009, 124,600 construction jobs had been wiped out.
The sector has slowly started to rebound. Since last July, the sector has added 56,300 jobs, mainly in Ontario. But in B.C., where the construction losses were acute, construction employment has barely shown any improvements.

Organizations: Infrastructure Canada, Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Ottawa Convention Centre Canadian Press

Geographic location: OTTAWA, Quebec, B.C. Kitchener Ontario

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