If it's broken, don't fix it?

Robert Holden, Contributing Editor


These days as we all hear endless platitudes placed on the importance of infrastructure to public safety and economic strength, why is the important part of this message being forgotten, maintenance.

In recent years we see numerous provincial and other governments announcing seemingly endless millions of public dollars on road construction. In Newfoundland $30 million was allocated to the Provincial Roads Improvement Program in 05/06 later increased the following year to an impressive $60 million. Even the McGuinty government has made a bid to appear to be doing something by increasing the budget allowance for road building by an average of 5,3% over the past three years. We even have an industry expert praising this activity: "To their credit, governments have come to understand that this deficit is a huge problem..." says Jeff Morrison of the Canadian Construction Association in Ottawa.

The spin-offs to such high capitalization projects are a moderate decrease in the jobless rate, a momentary spike in local economic spending and a general boost to electoral spirits as visible progress appears to be being made. All good things, when they are in your riding, but then what? When the road or bridge is finished and dedicated by some prominent dignitary or M.P.P. what is the road superintendent or county engineer supposed to do. The obvious answer is maintain it, but with what resources.

Most road building projects ultimately have all or part of their historical maintenance costs carried by the local municipality or regional authority. With a limited revenue base and usually even less political will, how can adequate steps be enacted to ensure that this latest project has a long and productive lifespan. The historical evidence is that it does not get the care and attention required to provide the engineered life cycle as a matter of routine. The provincial fuel levies were created for this sole purpose, yet, instead of being used in this way they are fritted away on subsidizing governmental sound-bite schemes, resulting in a greater thirst for these earmarked revenues.

Road superintendents at every level are faced with creating a winter plan, vegetation control, and equipment maintenance, usually with the mandate of maximum service at minimum cost. Too regularly we see budget reductions at the public works level, and increases elsewhere, usually on projects with minimal quantifiable benefit to the community. In Canada, winter maintenance gets the lion's share of the budget, which seems intuitive, but you need to have a road to spread salt on first. Consider the winter just past, I am already hearing cries from the council chamber about how much money can be saved next year!

Why is there never a ministerial announcement of an infrastructure life cycle fund, or the linking of capital budget figures to long-term maintenance dollars. Look at crack sealing as an example of the affordable cost of maintenance over restoration. Typically, this is done at 1/6th the cost of traditional rehabilitation methods. So for the ratepayers $30 millions, maintenance spending of $5 millions could add 10 years or more to the lifecycle of the project. Think of that, a 30 year roadway lasting as much as 50 with limited degradation as opposed to the current model of lasting half the expected life and becoming a public hazard.

The economic benefits are staggering if projected ahead. Currently we are hearing of manpower and equipment shortages and a general overextension of contractors owing to a splurge of government spending. When the flood recedes, the picture as ever, will not be pleasant, lay-offs, equipment surpluses and an economic stagnation in the construction sector. A more progressive approach involving a serious commitment to maintenance would spread the capital project dollars more evenly, reduce the overall tax burden and create an economic model of continuous renewal.

It will require a paradigm shift within governments and the construction industry to fulfill the ideals of such a program. When mayoral pride is seconded to fiscal and civic responsibility, perhaps the public works planners can be afforded the opportunity to get on with the job they have of maintaining our communities rather than administering critical care.

As the old adage states; an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Nowhere is this more true than in the continual maintenance of our roads, bridges and other critical infrastructure.


© InfraStructures - Tous droits réservés - All rights reserved