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provincial budget

Over the next five years the NDP committed $34-billion to infrastructure projects.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

As Albertans continue to absorb an NDP budget with a big deficit and projections that the province will go into debt for the first time in two decades to pay the bills, city councillors across Alberta are hoping the next spending plan from the New Democrats will contain more money and clearer priorities.

The NDP committed $34-billion to infrastructure projects over the next five years, an increase of 15 per cent recommended by former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge, who advised the NDP on the plan. While Premier Rachel Notley's government has sold the construction program as a form of stimulus for an economy that shed 63,500 jobs over the first eight months of this year, the package is also said to be aimed at fixing the province's creaking public infrastructure.

Roads, schools and hospitals in Edmonton and Calgary have struggled to keep up over the past two decades with populations that have jumped by more than 50 per cent. However, some city councillors in Edmonton wondered after Tuesday's budget if Ms. Notley's government was taking the capital city for granted.

"I'm going to stay optimistic, but they need to know that Edmonton didn't get what it was expecting," said city councillor Tony Caterina. "The rhetoric of before the election is not the same as what Ms. Notley came out with in what is hopefully only a bridging budget to next spring."

While the long-governing Progressive Conservatives had their power base in Calgary, Ms. Notley swept the Edmonton region when her party took power in May, and the new Premier put fellow Edmontonians in most of the major portfolios in her cabinet.

However, on the morning after the budget's release, Ms. Notley was in Calgary announcing goodies in the budget: nearly $3-billion to finish the city's ring road, $830-million for a new cancer centre and $100-million for new flood measures.

Two of her lieutenants in Edmonton delivered a far more modest list: $20-million over two years to study the need to refurbish two of the capital region's dilapidated hospitals. None of the $4.5-billion needed to finish the city's light rail system, nor any money to rebuild either of the hospitals. A preliminary estimate for the reconstruction of one of the health centres has been pegged at $4.5-billion.

In the month before voters kicked the Tory government out of power, Ms. Notley criticized then premier Jim Prentice for what she called "foot-dragging" on plans to replace Edmonton's Misericordia Hospital. Operations have been interrupted and parts of the 46-year-old facility have been closed numerous times due to repeat flooding from heavy rains and broken pipes over the past four years. And now Ms. Notley's health minister has said the government will undertake two more years of study.

While Calgary got money for some long-awaited projects, the city's capital plan calls for investment of more than $10-billion. Five-time Calgary councillor Druh Farrell said she expected more specifics from Ms. Notley's government.

"It's an interim budget, and I wasn't expecting many surprises because there isn't a lot of money to spend. I was expecting more specifics in affordable housing and public transit, but I think those will come in March. I'm willing to be patient. They inherited a mess," she said.

The budget Finance Minister Joe Ceci tabled on Tuesday will last until the end of the current fiscal year, with the NDP's second budget expected in March. Ms. Farrell and Mr. Caterina call the affordable housing situation a crisis in their cities, and said new money for housing was a surprising omission by the New Democrats.

"I'm shaking my head, because you've hit on a real sour note for Edmonton and Calgary," Mr. Caterina said of affordable housing. "We were anticipating some relief from the housing issues we face here. Even though it isn't our jurisdiction, Edmonton alone commits nearly $60-million per year in housing."

The person guiding the new construction program is Brian Mason, the government's House Leader and Infrastructure Minister. A former bus driver who ran the provincial NDP for a decade before he stepped back and let Ms. Notley take over, Mr. Mason is now her most senior minister.

Sitting in his office, he said he is prepared for years of heavy construction spending on his watch. He has a laminated sheet with information on the government's infrastructure plan on his desk. "They were going to make me wear it around my neck. I demurred," he said with a chuckle.

He says the lack of affordable housing money will be made up for by a $4.4-billion fund in the infrastructure plan. Projects will undergo non-partisan planning, and Alberta will attempt to get a commitment from the incoming Liberal government in Ottawa to match every dollar, Mr. Mason said.

The federal Liberals have promised to boost federal infrastructure spending by $60-billion over the next decade, on top of the $65-billion currently planned.

"A dollar goes farther now than it did a few years ago, and next year it might go a little further," Mr. Mason said. "I'm waiting for the appointment of my federal counterpart, I want to be in touch with him or her right away, I'm going to establish that relationship and talk about how we can interlock the infrastructure programs in order to maximize the dollars available to Alberta."

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