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Maintaining infrastructure only possible if governments make it a priority

The outages in the Texas power grid indicate not only the perils of deregulation, but of officials failing to do the most important part of governing: making sure the infrastructure is solid.

To save costs and to thumb their noses at government oversight – the state has for decades refused to connect to the wider national grid to avoid federal regulations – Texas failed repeatedly to weatherize its energy infrastructure. This despite past examples of the bad things that happen when, for instance, wintry weather strikes.

Instead of spending perhaps millions to upgrade the system hit similarly a decade earlier, the costs will run into the tens of billions to restore the grid, repair the transmission equipment and settle insurance suits for all of the damaged homes.

It’s a clear case of being penny wise – though in this case “wise” – and pound foolish.

Jumping all the way north to Woolwich, local officials are having an infrastructure debate of their own, albeit without the same political partisanship.

At issue here is the fate of the Peel Street Bridge in Winterbourne. Specifically, whether or not to tear down the existing structure and spend several million dollars to replace it. Leaving aside the heritage value of the 1913 steel span and the community’s desire to save it, the idea of a new bridge fails the cost-benefit analysis: the crossing would be used by a few horse-drawn buggies, but at too high a cost.

Even in isolation, spending that kind of money doesn’t make sense. More so when you consider that the township doesn’t have the money, and would have to borrow it. Yet more so when you look at the fact Woolwich already has a substantial infrastructure deficit measuring into the tens of millions, projects far more pressing and with more impact than a new bridge in Winterbourne.

Woolwich, like every other municipality in the country, is way behind in setting aside money to replace aging roads, bridges, sewers and facilities. It faces an infrastructure deficit of more than $60 million over the next decade for road and bridge work alone.

For years we’ve coasted on the infrastructure built decades ago: we never saved for a rainy day, and now the skies have opened up. The township has too much on its plate to add to the list (or to spend money on non-essential services, but that’s another story).

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 repaired the Glasgow Street bridge, voted to close the Middlebrook Place span and is now planning to restore the Peel Street bridge for pedestrian use only.

The township doesn’t have the means to tackle the most pressing infrastructure jobs, 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. 

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 Peel Street bridge does have going for it is the 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 functional-and-ugly, though that’s an affliction found in North American society in general.

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 – massively pronounced due to the pandemic – the province and the federal government have empty coffers of their own.

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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