Forget ice rink/fountain, worry about roads, sewers and bridges

First published: August 11, 2007

As the remnants of a Minneapolis bridge that collapsed last week were slowly being removed from the Mississippi River, questions around the state of bridges, roads, sewers and other infrastructure in Northumberland County seems reasonable.

The tragedy last week left at least five people dead and eight still missing (when this was written), along with 100 people injured, after the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed. A construction company was doing maintenance on the 40-year old bridge when it crumbled.

Canada watched in horror in Sept. 2006 as a similar incident took place in Laval, Que., when five people were killed and six others injured as a major highway bridge collapsed. These kinds of incident happen in smaller places, as well. In Sudbury, an overpass collapsed while undergoing rehabilitation work in 2004. A culvert collapsed when it became corroded in 2006.

Discussing these kinds of issues is not sexy, but try to press on. Certainly, radioactive waste, fountains/ice rinks and municipal policing are the kinds of issues that raise the collective blood pressure with greater ease than discussing the state of a bridge or the capacity of a water treatment plant. Yet, this is a massive problem with serious implications, as demonstrated over the past week.

Ghani Razaqpur, chairperson of the civil engineering department at McMaster University, is quoted by the Canadian Press as saying most bridges were built in the 1960s with a design life of 50 years. A Statistics Canada report says nearly half the bridges in the country have reached the end of their lifespan. In other words, the crisis is upon us. There are 2,800 bridges under provincial jurisdiction, while there are some 13,000 bridges under municipal control.

Northumberland County’s 110 bridges and culverts were inspected earlier this year. In a roads report to county council, consultants noted county roads were improving, but still less than half were deemed adequate. Believe it or not, less than one-quarter was given the same ranking in 2003. On average, the county spends $3 million per year on roads and bridges, depending on the availability of various grants from the province and federal governments. Last year, a whopping $10.2 million got spent, but it was an exception.

If this issue is about anything, it is about money. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimates there needs to be about $100 billion spent to upgrade local roads, bridges and sewer plants. In its budget last year, the federal government pledged $16.5 billion over the next four years. While this may appear to be significant, it is not. At this rate, it will take between 20 to 30 years to just meet current needs, let alone any future needs. Also, the money is not just used for roads and bridges, but for public transit, border crossing and other expenses.

The provincial government sinks its own money into the pot through the Canada-Ontario Municipal Rural Infrastructure Fund. Northumberland County got $2 million earlier this year for a host of projects, including the Batawa water treatment plant, Healy Falls Bridge, McCubbin Bridge, Mutton Bridge and other projects. Port Hope recently received more than $10 million for its water treatment plant and Cobourg got one-third of the costs for its $4.5 million expansion of the water treatment plant.

Still it is not enough. There were 290 applications. Only 72 were successful. This is barely a quarter of the work needing to be done.

Public infrastructure Renewal Minister David Caplan said in February, this problem is a massive one. Yet, he blames the unfairness of the federal transfers. Ontarians contribute far more money in equalization payments than it receives back.

In a recently letter to the editor, Doug Reycraft, president of the Association of Municipalities in Ontario (AMO), said Ontario taxpayers get shafted by paying $238 per person more in property taxes than other Canadians. Meanwhile, the provincial government spends $258 less per person on health and social service programs. This downloading of an array of services means huge pressures on county and local governments.

Funding for infrastructure is a political hacky sac, as municipal, provincial and federal politicians kick around the responsibility rather than tackle the issue head on. The reason is simple. To solve this problem, taxes would inevitably go up. The billions of dollars it would take would result in some direct form of taxation. And, in the neo-conservative shadow of “no tax increases” and deficit reduction, it is impossible to imagine how else it could happen.

So, a national game of Russian roulette takes place. Meanwhile, Northumberland County residents are being conned. Each year, municipal budget chiefs provide us with mini-dramas as the release of initial budgets with massive increases, only to be wrestled into submission by the time the final figures arrive. They believe we are too stupid to realize the game being played, as the political optics are meant to show council as financial heroes.

But, how long can we fool around. Sooner or later, we must pay. It will happen through the loss of life, like Minneapolis and Laval, or through our tax bill. The choice is ours. And, the blustering of those opposed to increased taxes must be weathered by more reasonable minds. Instead of cutting local police or not fixing a road or meeting high water quality standards are things residents want and need for the long term.

With a provincial election on the horizon for this fall, it is a good time to get the debate started.

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