9.8 C
Sunday, October 13, 2019
Connecting Our Communities

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


Meet the candidates

By Veronica Reiner & Aneta RebiszewskiFive candidates are vying for your vote in...

Kitchener-Conestoga too close to call

With less than five percentage points separating the Conservatives and Liberals in the riding, Kitchener-Conestoga has become too close...

Organizers aim to put environment at the forefront of election

The federal election underway, environmental groups are looking to make issues such as climate change a central part...

Putting the green in the initiative

The woodlot in Elmira's South Parkwood subdivision attracted 35 volunteers who planted 150 trees Oct. 5....
Steve Kannon
Steve Kannonhttps://www.observerxtra.com
A community newspaper journalist for more than two decades, Steve Kannon is the editor of the Observer.

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.

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to The Observer's online community. Pseudonyms are not permitted.By submitting a comment, you accept that The Observer has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner The Observer chooses. Please note that The Observer does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our submission guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.


Program encourages Girls to give it a Go

Whether you’re a girl in need of a new friend or just someone to hear you out, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Waterloo Region (BBBSWR) is offering a seven-week GoGirls mentoring program at the...

In Print. Online. In Pictures. In Depth.

You obviously love community journalism. Thanks for visiting today. If you have a great local story, let us know.

A mixed-bag for Jacks as streak ends

The Wellesley Applejacks suffered their first regulation loss of the season last Friday, bouncing back to post a tie and a win as...

Music that’s designed to give you a lift

Audiences can expect an authentic atmosphere, soul-stirring ballads, and plenty of interaction with the cast in Drayton Entertainment’s latest offering.Now...

Shantz family doesn’t have to look far to find new owner for historic schoolhouse building

With fall’s arrival, change is in the air, but that’s not reserved just for the weather. A St. Jacobs historical landmark is being...

Scoring aplenty as Kings post a pair of wins

A pair of convincing wins saw the Elmira Sugar Kings pick up where they left off when a five-game winning streak was snapped...

Young Breslau martial artists continue to excel, collect hardware

It’s been another successful run for a pair of Breslau siblings, who crushed two martial arts tournaments in the past month.
- Advertisement -