What if stimulus spending actually built something stimulating?

The main focus of the build-up to this week’s federal budget is not what’s coming next but what’s coming to an end. The government vows to deliver no significant new spending, so the 2010 budget Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is slated to table on Thursday must, by default, draw attention to the winding down of the two-year stimulus spending spree he launched last year.

Most of the debate surrounding this Keynesian public-works binge—especially the $4-billion Infrastructure Stimulus Fund created in the 2009 budget— was over whether it would be enough to beat back the recession. (As the Globe and Mail’s redoubtable Janet McFarland reports this morning, most of the spending will flow after the worst of the downturn is well behind us.)

I thought from the outset that if the federal government was serious about spending as fast as possible without risking boondoggles, it would have simply topped up normal transfers that flow to cities and towns with a few billion extra earmarked for small-scale capital projects. That was, in fact, the strategy suggested by  the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and endorsed by independent economist Dale Orr.

But that approach would have led to nothing flashier than municipalities speeding up their standard road, sewer, waterworks and parks projects. That’s not the sort of infrastructure that provides politicians with platforms for giant novelty cheque photo-ops. So, instead, the federal government chose a more cumbersome process that allows cabinet ministers and ordinary MPs to claim a bit of the supposed reflected glory of somewhat larger-scale projects.

And yet the need to get the money out the door within the two-year timeframe precluded most truly ambitious undertakings, the sort that take considerable planning. What we ended up, then, was projects larger than, say, digging a new sewer line, but smaller than the grand buildings that can put a permanent mark on communities.

I was prompted to ponder the potential of truly landmark public construction schemes by Tony Judt’s essay “In Love with Trains,” part of a wonderful series of short memoir pieces by the historian that are being published in the New York Review of Books. (Judt is gravely ill with Lou Gehrig’s disease.)

It’s not his love of the trains but the stations that stands out. “At their best—from St. Pancras to Berlin’s remarkable new central station—railway stations are the very incarnation of modern life,” Judt writes, “which is why they last so long and still perform so very well the task for which they were first designed.” He realizes that England’s great “glass-and-metal Victorian stations” were to him what churches and cathedrals were to earlier poets and artists.

With Judt’s reflections in freshly in mind, it’s deeply unsatisfying to think that we’ll come through our present round of infrastructure spending without raising up anything nearly so enduring. And it’s not because major public buildings have lost the power to change the way we look at cities. Did Richmond, B.C., ever stand for anything in our minds (besides, it’s near Vancouver, right?) before the Richmond Olympic Oval speed skating rink? The oval’s so-called “wood wave” roof, made of pine-beetle killed lumber, is a marvel. Does Winnipeg have a better calling card these days that the new Manitoba Hydro Place, a striking 22-storey tower designed with astonishing energy efficiency features?

Judt reminds us that public buildings that serve practical functions can also fire the imagination. There’s nothing wrong with humble public-works aims—as I’ve noted, if our goal was to inject money quickly into a stalled economy, paving streets and laying pipes would have been just the ticket. Instead, we’re spending those billions a bit slower, and yet, a few decades from now, will we have anything worthy of remembering?