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Vehiles drive along the Trans Canada Highway through Banff National Park with Mt. Cascade in the background in this 2008 file photo.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Finance Minister Bill Morneau recalled the postwar glory days of infrastructure-building – from the Trans-Canada Highway to the St. Lawrence Seaway – as he rolled out a new government spending spree.

"Confidence inspired investment. Investment inspired confidence," Mr. Morneau said in his budget speech Tuesday.

"The economy grew rapidly. And Canadians prospered."

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The government hopes to similarly fire up the sluggish economy with a pledge to double spending on infrastructure to $120-billion over the next decade.

It's not clear this plan comes anywhere close to matching the grandiose projects that reshaped Canada's physical and economic landscape in the decades after the Great Depression and the Second World War. Or that it will bring the prosperity promised by Mr. Morneau.

There's a lot of fresh money, including nearly $4-billion to be spent in the fiscal year that begins in April and $7.3-billion next year.

But these investments will be sprinkled over a dizzying array of programs and sectors – from subways and college buildings to refurbishing government buildings and subsidizing ferries in Atlantic Canada. Plans for much of the money are still to be determined, with the spending heavily back-loaded to the latter years of the decade.

All of it has been dumped into one giant basket, loosely called "infrastructure."

Most problematic, there is no apparent overarching strategy to ensure the money is well-spent and delivers the promised economic benefits. The budget documents suggest infrastructure investment will deliver an estimated economic boost of 0.2 per cent of GDP in fiscal 2016-17 and 0.4 per cent in 2017-18. That's roughly in line with the multiplier effects from the previous Conservative government's infrastructure boost during the last recession.

No one denies that Canada still has huge infrastructure needs. We're stuck with the roads, bridges and sewer systems built during the postwar boom years, but neglected in the 1980s and 1990s.

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Shifting trade patterns and population growth have left Canada trying to make up for lost time. And the needs exceed the demands.

The overall quality of Canada's infrastructure has been slipping badly compared to other developed countries, according to recent surveys by the World Economic Forum. The country's overall ranking slipped to 19th spot in 2015 from 15th in 2013 and 10th place in 2009.

The danger of playing catch-up is the potential to get it wrong – that the government neglects good investments and goes ahead with bad ones in a rush to get cash out the door.

"What is required is a long-term and consistent approach to infrastructure that promotes sound and timely investments throughout the economic cycle," according to a report this month by the Ottawa-based Centre for the Study of Living Standards.

Building infrastructure requires "a strong federal role in prioritizing, planning and funding," argue the authors, David Lewis and Ian Currie.

And much more emphasis, they said, needs to be put on a careful cost-benefit analysis of individual projects.

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In this budget, Ottawa is delivering the money, including nearly $12-billion in the first wave of spending. It's a lot less clear that the government is offering much in the way of planning and prioritizing, leaving those decisions to other levels of government and the future.

Yes, the government is focusing on public transit, "social" infrastructure and so-called green infrastructure.

But those are broad categories that encompass a wide array of activities. Green infrastructure suggests money will go into new technology to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. But the bulk of the new "green" money is actually earmarked for resolving some decidedly old problems, including water and sewage-treatment projects in First Nations communities.

That's in keeping with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's recent pronouncement that much of the infrastructure money would go to "unsexy" projects.

Indeed, there is no inspiring and transformative equivalent of the Trans-Canada or the Seaway project in this budget.

That isn't necessarily a bad thing. Politicians love to be associated with sexy, large-scale projects – subways, superhighways and the like. For some cities, a smarter synchronized traffic-light system may provide more bang for the buck and do more to relieve traffic congestion than a costly megaproject.

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But there is no evidence that Ottawa has learned the lessons of past infrastructure binges, including a concerted effort to get the most benefits for Canadians at the least cost to taxpayers.

Five years of infrastructure spending

Five-year total, in millions of dollars

Green infrastructure

Public transit

Social infrastructure

Cultural and recreational

$342

Public Transit

Infrastructure Fund

$3,400

Early learning and child care

$400

Water, wastewater and waste management infrastructure for First Nations communities

$2,242

Social infrastructure investments in First Nations, Inuit and northern communities

$1,219

Clean Water and Wastewater Fund

$2,000

Affordable housing

$1,481

Climate change

mitigation and

adaptation

infrastructure projects

$518

Supporting municipal capacity-building

$250

Green infrastructure

Public transit

Social infrastructure

Cultural and recreational

$342

Supporting municipal capacity-building

$250

Early learning and child care

$400

Climate change mitigation and adaptation

infrastructure projects

$518

Total

 

Social infrastructure investments in

First Nations

Inuit and northern communities

$1,219

Clean Water and Wastewater Fund

$2,000

Water, wastewater and waste management infrastructure for First Nations communities

$2,242

Public Transit Infrastructure Fund

$3,400

Affordable housing

$1,481

Green infrastructure

Public transit

Social infrastructure

Cultural and recreational

$342

Public Transit

Infrastructure Fund

$3,400

Early learning and child care

$400

Water, wastewater and waste management infrastructure for First Nations communities

$2,242

Social infrastructure investments in First Nations, Inuit and northern communities

$1,219

Clean Water and Wastewater Fund

$2,000

Affordable housing

$1,481

Climate change

mitigation and

adaptation

infrastructure projects

$518

Supporting municipal capacity-building

$250

Green infrastructure

Public transit

Social infrastructure

Supporting municipal capacity-building

$250

Cultural and recreational

$342

Climate change mitigation and adaptation

infrastructure projects

$518

Early learning and child care

$400

Total

 

Social infrastructure investments in

First Nations

Inuit and northern communities

$1,219

Clean Water and Wastewater Fund

$2,000

Water, wastewater and waste management infrastructure for First Nations communities

$2,242

Public Transit Infrastructure Fund

$3,400

Affordable housing

$1,481

THE GLOBE AND MAIL » SOURCE: BUDGET 2016
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