Cities aren’t spending enough to keep their infrastructure going: report

A water main break in Montreal on Jan. 2, 2016. Without more investment, Canadian cities could see even more such breaks. Alex Chabot/Global News

Canadian cities aren’t investing enough to keep the country’s infrastructure in good repair, according to a new report by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and other national organizations.

One-third of municipal infrastructure is already showing signs of deterioration or deficiencies in need of repair, the report says. Without more investment, that share will keep growing.

The report, released Monday, is based on surveys distributed to FCM member cities, asking municipal staff to rate their roads, drinking water, wastewater, and storm water, public buildings, sports and recreation facilities and public transit systems.

Most municipalities rated their bridges, drinking and stormwater facilities in good condition. They were less generous with their roads, city-owned buildings and sports facilities.

And small municipalities rated their roads worse.

49 per cent of fire stations and 51 per cent of arenas were rated as requiring repair; 29 per cent of youth centres are in “very poor” condition, which means that demand exceeds the design capacity and/or operational problems are serious and ongoing.

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And as Global News has reported, local politicians are often oblivious themselves to the disrepair their infrastructure’s in.

READ MORE: Documents suggest City of Toronto staff downplayed Gardiner structural concerns

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Canada’s largest city is currently debating how to address a $124 million shortfall in its annual budget, while dealing with major infrastructure repairs like the Gardiner Expressway, as well as new transit projects.

The consequences of under-investment in infrastructure maintenance aren’t always immediately apparent, said Nick Larson, chair of the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers’ infrastructure renewal committee, one of the organizations that worked on the report.

“Overnight things aren’t going to start going down the toilet,” he said. “But you’re going to see gradual declines. Things like basement flooding in municipalities if sewers start to collapse, or with respect to water main failures, you might see water mains that break more, causing disruption to traffic, damage to private property.”

READ MORE: From 2014 – Toronto’s water mains having worst winter in 20 years

It’s easy to see cracks in the wall of a decades-old arena, most people don’t realize what’s happening underground in their city’s pipes.

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And while it can be easy to put off maintenance spending, that’s more expensive in the long run, he said.

“As soon as things start declining past a fair condition, they can require large sums of money to be renewed as opposed to smaller investments to ensure that they don’t fall into a poor state of repair,” he said.

“Think of your house. You’re going to replace your shingles, you’re not going to do the whole roof. You’re going to make sure you’re spending the upkeep that’s required so you avoid huge expenditures down the road.”

READ MORE: Cities clamour for speedier infrastructure cash

The report does not say exactly how many dollars of investment are required to keep up Canadian infrastructure. This was a deliberate decision, said Larson, as different people have different standards in mind.

However, the report notes that “reinvestment rates” – the annual renewal budget as a percentage of the asset’s replacement value – are much lower than expert-recommended targets.

To keep your roads in good repair, for example, cities are advised to spend between two and three per cent of their value on annual maintenance; on average, Canadian cities only spend 1.1 per cent.

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