Thursday, June 29, 2017

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StephenVance 540Five years ago I wrote an article entitled 'Bridge Blues on the Way'. Meaford's council of the day had received a staff report advising that nearly $20 million would need to be spent on bridges and culverts in the municipality over the next ten years. It was a report that was a wake up call for council – infrastructure trouble ahead – yet that report only scratched the surface.

Last summer our current council was presented with an exhaustive study of our bridges conducted by consulting firms Ainley Group and DFA Infrastructure, and the news was even worse than it had been just a few years earlier. According to the State of the Infrastructure (SOTI) report for bridges, more than $30 million would be required to fund bridge rehabilitations over the next ten years alone, with some $80 million in bridge funding required over the next 50 years. In essence, Meaford needs to be spending $1.5 million per year every year for the next 50 years, beginning yesterday.

If we were to start actually spending that $1.5 million each year without upper level grant funding or by taking on massive amounts of new debt, a tax increase of more than 10 percent would be required to get the ball rolling – doesn't sound very appealing, does it? And that's part of the problem: government at all levels across this whole country have been reluctant to sock away funds for each piece of infrastructure that was built all those decades ago in order to have funds readily available when a piece of infrastructure had reached the end of its useful life and needed to be replaced. I mean, why would governments go to all the trouble of establishing reserve accounts for every bridge, roadway, or sewer system that was built, and then contribute to those accounts annually when there were much more exciting things to do? Not to mention governments are forever battling the 'no tax increase' crowd.

Imagine how different Meaford's financial position would be today had we not had all those zero tax increase years in the past as our bridges and roads slowly crumbled?

The state of the Municipality’s bridges and culverts is declining,” the consultants concluded in their report to council last year, but it isn't just Meaford. Bridges all over this continent are in poor condition, and municipalities along with upper levels of government are scrambling to figure out what they are going to do about it.

Some light research into bridge infrastructure challenges will tell you that many municipalities are having to close bridges rather than replace them, and finding funding to rehabilitate the bridges they absolutely have to keep is proving to be extremely difficult.

Meaford's council is currently in a less than enviable position with regard to the two single-lane bridges on the Holland-Sydenham Townline. Those two old bridges might have only been seeing 29 cars a day crossing them, but they are a vital link to residents on the road as well as area farmers. How do we put a value on that?

Just a year ago council approved a bridge infrastructure strategy that included the closure of these two bridges along with a half dozen other bridges in the municipality. It was an easy thing to do. On paper, and without any emotional evaluation, when you see that a pair of 70-year-old single-lane bridges plunked in the middle of nowhere (so to speak, don't anyone get offended) with just 29 cars per day crossing them, yet they will require in the neighbourhood of $1.5 million when all is said and done to replace them. There are indeed alternate routes to the north and south, how could any council justify spending that kind of money based on those paper facts? None of us would, particularly given that there are 79 other bridges in the municipality that are or soon will be in need of rehabilitation or replacement, and many of those see several hundred cars roll across them each day.

Oh, but how council's tone changed when there were a dozen or so concerned residents in the council chamber last week (one of the reasons I try to encourage residents to attend council meetings), sharing their stories of how important these bridges really are – reports be damned. What about the farmer who needs to get feed to his cows and has used those bridges all his life? Sure the alternate route is only a few kilometres and only takes four extra minutes in a standard vehicle driving 80 kilometres per hour in perfect weather conditions, but what about the farmer's tractor pulling a trailer plodding along at 20 kilometres per hour (and much less on those big hills)?

These two little bridges aren't even the most difficult bridges for our council to deal with (not even close), yet whatever decision is made, I'm sure that most members of council will agonize over their own vote right up until the moment they cast that vote. As Meaford's Treasurer reminded council last week, however, we have bridges in this municipality that feed dead-end roads, and nine of those bridges feed just one driveway. What will council do when faced with having to spend $1.5 million to replace a bridge that is used by the residents of just one home?

For a little perspective, let's assume that to replace the Holland-Sydenham Townline bridges did cost $1.5 million to replace. Over the next ten years at 29 vehicles per day, the replacement bridge would be crossed 105,850 times – that's a cost to taxpayers of $14 bucks per crossing. That might sound excessive, but it sure wouldn't if you relied on that bridge for your farm or to get to and from home.

Not to mention that, bridges aside, tens of millions of dollars will be needed for road replacements and rehabilitation in the coming years, oh and the sewers, and municipal buildings. We're already seeing other municipalities having to roll the clock backwards by taking asphalt paved roads back to gravel when it comes time for rehabilitation because they simply can't afford to pave all the roads that need to be paved – and that could very well happen here too in the future.

As I've been writing often for many years, the infrastructure nightmare is coming – well, here it is, Meaford, just a small scratch in the surface of the infrastructure conundrum ahead of us.

If you were a member of council, what would you do? Replace the bridges by raising taxes? Replace the bridges by taking on more than a million dollars in debt to replace two single lane bridges that only see 29 cars per day cross them? Or would you close the bridges and move on to the next infrastructure headache?

Hint: there are no wrong answers.


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