Deteriorating roads, bridges need to be top priority

First published: August 25, 2005

Northumberland MPP Lou (who?) Rinaldi and Ontario Minister of Public Infrastructure met with municipal leaders at the annual Association of Municipalities of Ontario conference last week to hear concerns over replacing deteriorating roads, bridges, sewers and the like.

It’s not very riveting stuff. Yet, our man at Queen’s Park was in the thick of it, hearing complaints from 41 municipal leaders about potholes, crumbling trestles, and other woes far beyond the imagination of regular people. Nobody worries about this stuff on a day-to-day basis. That is until a tire drops into a hole the size of the Grand Canyon nearly setting off the air bags; or you are driving down a dark road in a heavy rain storm cursing because it is impossible to see any lines on the road because they are so faded.
Even farther out of our consciousness are the countless bridges built in the early part of the last century that are older than most people in the Golden Plough and sagging just as badly.

Unfortunately, it is not until some extreme tragedy occurs that most residents in Northumberland even think twice about (what was the word again? Oh, yeah) infrastructure.

But it would certainly grab a lot of taxpayer’s attention if our tax bills suddenly went through the roof paying for our decaying hard services, giving them the capital investment needed to keep our county just up to date, let alone ahead of the game.

Just take bridges for a small example. The county needs $6.8 million for urgent and immediate repairs. It only received a paltry $400,000 this year.

Port Hope is behind in its road program by $9 million alone. This year, the county could have spent at least $1 million on its own repairs, but chose to keep it down to $400,000.

This is no surprise to Mr. Rinaldi. When he was in front of county council in June, he told them Ontario has a $100-billion infrastructure deficit.

The federal government is trying to do its share by distributing a portion of gas taxes to municipal governments. Over the five-year period of the program Cobourg will get $1.4 million: Hamilton Township will get $876,000; and Port Hope $1.3 million.

The province does its share through the new Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund, a special agreement through the Association of Municipalities of Ontario. Mr. Rinaldi was chirping about it back in June, saying his riding got an extra $3.2 million. The county got an additional $1.56 million.

All this seems like good news and municipal politicians should pipe down. Still, they are not.

For Mr. Rinaldi, and his government, the answer is a simple one: eliminate duplication of services at the local and county municipal levels. He advocates things like one police service for the county, one roads department, one economic development office, and one tourism promotion program.

The two-tier municipal system, where there is a county and local municipalities, dates back to 1849 when the Baldwin Act was enacted. It was the foundation for responsible government in Ontario. For the most part, it went unchanged until 1995 when The Progressive Conservatives under Mike Harris cut the number of municipalities from 814 to 445. Still, it has not reduced the overall costs, nor has it brought about any real advantage for everyday taxpayers. If anything, it has created unprecedented frustration.

Creating a single level of municipal government across regions will not make one cent worth of difference when it comes to infrastructure. There will still be all kinds of roads and bridges to fix. Any savings from consolidating other services like Mr. Rinaldi suggests will only evaporate into other cost centres, not into taxpayers’ pockets.

The truth is simple. We must pay. Now or later, we face these costs. Continuous under funding of infrastructure does nobody any good, creating an illusion rather than facing a hard reality.

Municipal leaders must also face up to the fact that annual budgets, which continuously fail to address infrastructure need until they are at near crisis levels, is not a workable system. Rather than skating along worrying more about being elected than serving the public responsibly, maybe there needs to be a more open exchange about priorities.

A key component of this would be educating the public about the importance of spending money on roads and bridges.

Also, we, as taxpayers, need to become more aware of such important issues. It shouldn’t take a near-death experience of driving off the road to wonder why our infrastructure is not looked after properly. Not all the blame can be placed at the feet of politicians.

Instead of fluffing off municipal leaders, maybe Mr. Rinaldi should become a champion, considering it was not too long ago he was sitting on a municipal council.

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