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Politics Tories say they’ve approved majority of Ontario’s infrastructure requests

Transport, Infrastructure and Communities Minister Denis Lebel listens to a question following an announcement at a Transport Canada facility Thursday February 14, 2013 in Gatineau. Lebel says the federal government has approved 77 of Ontario’s 106 listed infrastructure priorities.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The federal government has approved the vast majority of Ontario's initial infrastructure requests as it fires back over provincial complaints that the Conservatives are playing politics with the billions set aside for projects like roads, sewers and transit.

Federal Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel is revealing for the first time how many Ontario projects have been approved .

In a statement to The Globe and Mail, Mr. Lebel says that 77 of the 106 projects the province initially submitted for funding under the New Building Canada Fund have either been announced or approved by the government .

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The 106 projects are on an initial list previously submitted by Ontario. The province sent a second list to Ottawa on Thursday that seeks funding for major projects including infrastructure to encourage mining in northern Ontario's Ring of Fire region, as well as GO Transit improvements in Toronto and the surrounding region.

Mr. Lebel is responding to sharp criticism from Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and her cabinet because Ottawa has so far announced two projects – the Scarborough subway extension and a university expansion in Oshawa – that were not on the province's initial list of 106 priority projects. Ontario's latest letter asks that the Scarborough subway line be funded out of a national, rather than provincial, component of the fund.

Infrastructure spending is a major policy issue in Ontario and particularly in the Greater Toronto Area where traffic gridlock is estimated to cost billions each year in lost productivity.

All major federal parties are promising to address the issue but are proposing a variety of approaches. The Conservatives are hoping to win new seats in the region by promoting their infrastructure plans, but they face a Liberal premier who has been highly critical of the federal Conservatives.

Ottawa's New Building Canada Fund is worth $14-billion over 10 years, with $4-billion set aside for national infrastructure projects. Ontario has been promised $2.7-billion over those 10 years from the fund's provincial component. The province argues that unilateral spending decisions by Ottawa go against the spirit of the program and ultimately mean less money for the province's infrastructure priorities.

Mr. Lebel said the 29 other projects on the initial list are still being reviewed and responded in kind to the criticism he's received from Queen's Park.

"The remaining projects are being thoroughly analyzed, especially given the Wynne government's track record of government waste and poor fiscal management," he said. "Unlike the Wynne government, our Conservative government has budgeted our funding for infrastructure projects, while reducing taxes and balancing the budget. Our government continues to enjoy strong relationships with other provinces and territories as we work closely with them on their infrastructure priorities."

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Mr. Lebel's letter does not indicate which projects have been approved but not yet announced. However, a source told The Globe that the list includes road work in Sudbury as well as highway improvements for the Queen Elizabeth Way and Highway 404.

A recent Globe and Mail analysis of the more than 100 projects announced to date nationwide found that the vast majority have been awarded to Conservative-held ridings.

Ontario Infrastructure Minister Brad Duguid dismissed Mr. Lebel's comment about the province's fiscal record as a "gratuitous cheap shot." He told The Globe on Thursday that he hopes Ottawa takes a close look at the latest list and makes decisions before the federal election campaign begins.

"Our concern is their tendency to move toward unilaterally approving projects out of the blue without any discussion with the province," he said. "That's where we question the stability of our federal funding partner when they make those kinds of announcements."

In recent weeks, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government have pointed to federal infrastructure spending as a measure that will give the economy a boost this year, particularly in light of growing evidence that the economy has stalled or potentially slipped into recession.

However, in a written answer to Parliament in June, Mr. Lebel said that only six projects under the fund had begun construction.

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Liberal MP Ralph Goodale, who requested the statistics from Mr. Lebel, said that is not going to spur economic growth.

"News releases and announcements do not constitute investments now with shovels in the ground," he said.

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