OTTAWA — The federal government will dole out $4 billion for infrastructure projects based on a one-page application form that solicits only the most basic information.
The form’s simplicity is part of the Harper government’s bid to streamline the application process and get money flowing quickly to construction projects that are intended to create jobs and kickstart Canada’s sluggish economy.
But critics fear the government has gone overboard and will wind up throwing money at projects about which it knows next to nothing.
“I think the story here is how crazily simple they’re trying to make it,” Liberal infrastructure critic Gerard Kennedy said in an interview.
“This is like one of those late-night TV programs. Government subsidies, grants . . . They’re giving away millions, get your share.”
Worse, Kennedy said the paucity of detailed criteria for qualifying for the funding could allow the government to go on “a patronage fest,” choosing to fund projects primarily in Tory ridings.
The form asks applicants to give a two to three paragraph description of the project. It then poses a series of questions, to each of which applicants are to check yes or no, with a small space provided for any additional explanation.
Among the questions, applicants are asked what other non-federal funding they’ve secured, whether all necessary municipal, provincial and environmental permits have been obtained, whether the project is located within 250 metres of an environmentally sensitive area and whether it involves the likely release of a polluting substance into a water body.
Applicants are also asked if aboriginal communities are likely to be adversely effected by the project and whether they’ve been consulted.
Finally, applicants are asked to attest that their projects would not be constructed by March 31, 2011, without the requested federal funding.
Kennedy said federal officials have assured him they intend to subject each application to “due diligence.” But he said so little information is required on the forms that officials, inundated by thousands of applications, could waste weeks or months trying to verify details.
The infrastructure stimulus funds are supposed to begin flowing in June.
“One of two things is going to happen. Either it’s going to be meaningless because all (applicants) have done is give them a little bit of information or they’re going to have to follow up on every single thing,” Kennedy said.
“This will either take a long time or will be done badly. There’s no real in-between.”
Kennedy said the problem could have been avoided if the Conservative government had funnelled additional infrastructure funding through the gas tax fund, as municipalities had requested.
The government already pumps $2 billion a year from the federal gas tax into a fund that municipalities can tap to help pay for infrastructure projects, such as public transit, roads, bridges, waste management and water systems.
Municipalities choose which projects to fund, rather than having to make applications to the federal government.
Transport, Infrastructure and Communities Minister John Baird was not available to comment. But his spokesman, Chris Day, said Kennedy is being inconsistent.
Day said Kennedy’s demand that infrastructure money be funnelled through the gas tax fund amounts to “a blank cheque approach” in which there would be no application process or federal oversight.
Yet in criticizing the simplicity of the one-page federal application forms, Day said Kennedy is calling for “more red tape.”
“He can’t have it both ways.”