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There is obvious numerical symmetry in Stephen Harper's plan to spend $150-million on new infrastructure celebrating Canada's 150th birthday in 2017.

And there's political appeal, for sure.

But the economic logic is dubious.

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The Prime Minister says the money will go to "treasured cultural and community locations." He mentioned parks, trails and cultural and community centres.

"The 150th anniversary of Confederation is a time to celebrate the places across this great country that unite and connect us," Mr. Harper said in Truro, N.S., as he unveiled the program earlier this month.

The opposition was quick to jump on the Canada 150 program as an election stunt – an attempt to rush money out the door before the October election and curry favour with certain voters, particularly in rural ridings where this kind of spending gets noticed.

There are plenty other reasons to be skeptical.

Infrastructure spending is an economic winner. The multiplier effect can be huge. Every dollar spent boosts gross domestic product by anywhere from $1.14 to $2, according to various studies in Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere.

The payback depends heavily on where the money is spent. There is productive infrastructure that will generate economic benefits long after short-term construction jobs are gone. Think of highways, bridges, public transit, colleges, hospitals and water treatment facilities.

Then, there are hockey rinks and legion halls. These are nice too. But they are bobbles, not infrastructure that will provide enduring economic benefits to the country.

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The Canada 150 program is billed as a new initiative. But Ottawa has never really stopped spending on this kind of infrastructure. Barely a day goes by when the government doesn't announce cash for some small community project.

There is scant evidence Canada, with its aging population, needs more hockey rinks. There was an orgy of spending on exactly these kinds of "soft" projects following the 2008-09 financial crisis.

It's easy to understand why communities love these programs. It's money for popular stuff that's way down priority lists, dominated by roads and sewers.

Mr. Harper might well defend what he's doing by pointing out that the government put $53-billion over 10 years into its New Building Canada Plan in 2014 – a program designed for roads, bridges and the like.

The problem of course is that Canada's infrastructure needs dwarf this effort. The country is failing to replace what it has, let alone build more for the future. Canada currently spends about 2.9 per cent of GDP on public infrastructure, ranking it 17th among 27 wealthy OECD countries.

Another awkward reality for Ottawa is that the country's infrastructure needs are greatest in its largest cities. Cities are the engines of the national economy. They are also where most Canadians live.

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A 2013 study by senior policy analyst Benjamin Dachis of the C.D. Howe Institute put the cost of underinvestment in infrastructure – particularly on roads and transit – at $7.5-billion to $11-billion a year in Greater Toronto alone.

"Greater access to nearby activity results in people earning higher income," Mr. Dachis argued. "When congestion stifles these relationships, it threatens the essence of urban living."

But giving more money for transit projects in Toronto is not a political winner for the Conservative government, nor likely in Truro, N.S.

Urban ridings generally have more voters, and proportionally less political clout. Even after the addition of new federal seats for the coming election, urban and suburban voters will be badly underrepresented in the House of Commons.

Ottawa has the ability to do what the provinces can't. Unlike most provinces, the federal government has a low and declining debt burden, a triple-A credit rating and access to credit at up to a full percentage point less than even the largest provinces.

Ottawa should tap historically cheap debt and set up a Crown corporation to lend money to the provinces at low rates for infrastructure projects, former federal Finance officials Scott Clark and Peter DeVries argued recently in news website iPolitics.

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Spending more money in Toronto and other big cities makes the entire country stronger.

If Ottawa is going to throw more money at infrastructure, it should do it where it's most needed, and where the economic return is the greatest.

There is a certain common sense symmetry to that.

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