Historic bridges are caught in a numbers game that’s been badly played

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The debate about Woolwich’s old steel bridges is a perfect storm of crumbling infrastructure, poor financial management, neglect of our heritage and a losing numbers game.

In short, the bridges are likely doomed.

In the specific case of old bridges, time is the biggest enemy: they’re falling apart, and keeping them standing, let alone operational, costs money. An ever-increasing amount of money if they’re to remain open to traffic of any kind.

Mounting expenses apply to all of the infrastructure in the township, from water pipes to municipal buildings. Every government, in fact, has a growing list of things that need repair or replacement. And every government has been bad for years and decades at setting aside enough money to pay for those necessities. Most can’t even get a handle on today’s operating costs, let alone save enough for tomorrow.

The federal and provincial governments are the worst when it comes to fiscal mismanagement, from outright corruption and incompetence to deficit-spending in the name of buying votes. It’s the result of short-term thinking and a longstanding policy to kick problems down the road for future governments to deal with. Eventually, the squirrels come home to roost. And eventually is now.

Woolwich’s historic bridges are a small part of a very long list of infrastructure projects in need of funding. The township doesn’t have the means to tackle the most pressing, in part due to the sheer volume and in part due to past choices – perhaps-unneeded projects and bloated operational costs, particularly staffing – that have drained coffers even as tax rates soar.

In a cost-benefit analysis, the relatively low traffic volumes on the bridges make it impractical to keep them open to cars. The minor amount of recreational use – hiking, biking and the like – is unlikely to warrant spending millions of dollars.

When money has to be rationed – a lesson politicians seem to understand when it comes to roads and bridges, but not transitory, unproductive operational spending – deciding on priorities becomes a numbers game. The numbers aren’t in the bridges’ favour.

What the structures do have going for them is their historical value. Unfortunately, we place a very low value on such things. That’s particularly true in this region, where historical-and-aesthetic  have often been torn down in favour of provisional-and-ugly, though that’s an affliction found in North American society in general.

The heritage argument has merit, but it holds little weight, if past experience is any guide to future decisions.  Platitudes will be mouthed, but in the end it’s the money that does the talking. Behind everywhere else and facing more pressing concerns, Woolwich is stuck with making choices.

It’s not alone in that regard. Infrastructure deficits are a well-discussed issue at every level of government; past practices and short-term thinking, a mainstay of politicians, caused very little money to be set aside over the years since much of the infrastructure, from sewer lines to hospital buildings, was being built back in the halcyon days of a growing economy and much lower costs.

To its credit, Woolwich has been setting aside more money for a rainy day – i.e. the coming infrastructure storm. It’s been allocating some surplus funds to reserves, and has in place a special infrastructure levy: it’s another tax, but with the money allocated for a real need rather than being flushed away. In that vein, however, the township has done little to rein in its operating budget in order to make a real dent in the deficit rather than taxpayers’ wallets. The extra funds set aside are a good start, but they have not kept up with the growing list of projects. Even at today’s estimates – real costs are likely to be much higher, as there’s a history of being well off the mark with forecasts – the township is losing ground.

Again, that’s not unique to Woolwich. Despite plenty of lip service, governments continue to do very little in the way of long-term planning, let alone actual follow through. The township is somewhat ahead of the curve, even if progress is limited.

At the municipal level there’s always been an expectation that senior levels of government would come through with the money to pay for the bulk of infrastructure projects. Now, with budget woes of their own, much of it self-inflicted due to poor decision-making and management, the province and the federal government have empty coffers.

Cash-strapped municipalities have long called one-off grants and programs inadequate, preferring guaranteed slices of taxes such as the GST. There’s been some successes, such as sharing in fuel tax revenues, but many municipalities have proven unwise in their spending and mismanage the taxes they already collect; it would be folly to let them reach even deeper into our pockets.

Municipalities should indeed expect a bigger share of the revenues collected by senior governments. Looking to fix its fiscal situation, Ottawa downloaded costs to the provinces. In Ontario, the province in turn passed down the expense of many programs to the municipalities, with an inadequate share of the money to fund them. Over time, that decision put an increasing amount of strain on municipal budgets, and communities were hard-pressed to deal with immediate costs, let alone stockpile reserves for the replacement of aging infrastructure.

For the foreseeable future, however, municipalities will have to get their own houses in order if they’re going to deal with their infrastructure, some of it at a critical juncture. In the meantime, much will be sacrificed for years of neglect and still half-hearted efforts to save for the future.

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