Provinces, municipalities and community groups have as little as three weeks to get their proposals in for a new "Canada 150" infrastructure fund, prompting concern that the Conservatives are rushing to spend the cash ahead of the coming election.
Ottawa expects the program will renovate up to 1,800 existing facilities, such as community centres, hockey rinks, Legion halls and bike trails.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper launched the program on Friday, announcing that the fund would be worth $150-million over two years and would be managed by the six regional development agencies.
Since then, some of those agencies have posted details on how to apply. FedDev Ontario announced its deadline is June 9, while the development agency for Western Canada has a June 17 deadline and the agency for Quebec is taking submissions until June 26.
The agency for Western Canada is promising to inform successful applicants within 90 days of the deadline, which would fall around early September when the election campaign is expected to start.
"It's a pretty tight time frame, that's for sure, so we're a little concerned about that," said Doug Dobrowolski, president of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities, who said such a program is needed. "I don't know how many are actually going to apply."
The development agencies for Atlantic Canada and the territories are not setting hard deadlines for applications, while the agency for Northern Ontario will announce further details on Wednesday.
The fund was first announced in the 2015 budget but without a price tag.
Details that have since been posted by FedDev Ontario state "early submission of applications is encouraged" and that the program can only be used toward costs incurred between April 1, 2016 and March 31, 2018.
The opposition says the tight deadline shows the program is all about rushing money out the door ahead of an election.
"It looks very much like a political fund," said NDP MP Matthew Kellway. "You can easily imagine local Conservative MPs popping up with the big cheques here and there, making their announcements in the hearts of various communities … What it looks like to me is a pre-election goodie basket for Conservative MPs to be handing out."
Canadian Taxpayers Federation federal director Aaron Wudrick said the timing seems "awfully convenient" for the Conservatives.
"Clearly the timing is the most politically expedient possible," he said.
The program's terms are virtually identical to a now-defunct program called the Community Infrastructure Improvement Fund. It was launched in 2012 and expired on March 31, 2014.
At the time the program expired, the government was heavily promoting its New Building Canada Fund, which includes $14-billion in infrastructure spending over 10 years. However, many municipalities were frustrated to discover that projects like renovating community centres did not qualify under Building Canada.
The government's "Canada 150 Community Infrastructure Fund" appears to be a response to those concerns.
Government ministers and Conservative MPs are busy this week highlighting the new program and announcing projects under the Building Canada Fund.
A spokesperson for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities said Tuesday they had no comment on the topic.
At Friday's announcement, Mr. Harper suggested the fund could be used for a wide range of projects.
"Curling rinks, arenas, walking trails and bike routes, theatres and community halls in small towns and big cities alike, these are places where people come together," he said Friday at a Truro, N.S. recreational centre. "They are literally the beating hearts of the communities we live in."
With reports from Chris Hannay and The Canadian Press