Friday, July 21, 2017

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StephenVance 540As much as I focus a lot of my time (and ink) on infrastructure issues, like many, in spite of the fact that my feet tromp on them each and every day, I often overlook sidewalk infrastructure.

Like much of our infrastructure, many of our sidewalks were installed decades ago, and some of those old sidewalks are now crumbling and in need of repair or replacement. As with other infrastructure like roads and bridges, given the massive work ahead along with limited funds, municipal governments will at times need to make some tough decisions when it comes to sidewalks.

There will no doubt be some who aren't pleased with the recommendation to remove 1,400 metres of old, degraded sidewalks from the urban area of the municipality rather than replace them, but a thorough reading of the 32-page report that made the recommendation will help make some sense of the decision.

None of the sidewalks proposed for removal are heavily travelled. On many of the streets where the sidewalks are to be removed, there are sidewalks (in better condition and meeting modern design requirements) on the opposite side of the street. And there is no doubt that in their current condition, many of these sidewalks are an accident waiting to happen.

After the discussion about the sidewalks at last week's council meeting, I spent some time touring the municipality to locate many of the sidewalks proposed for removal in order to determine for myself if the staff report to council was correct in suggesting that each of these sidewalks was indeed beyond saving, but more importantly that they had essentially been deemed unnecessary. I have to agree, the removal of the sidewalks should benefit, not hurt, area residents.

None of the sidewalks that are to be removed lead to Canada Post mail boxes, an important consideration before removing any sidewalk. Some of them lead to nothing but a dead end mid-way along the street and in fact, one of the sidewalks on Bridge Street even leads the pedestrian directly into a large pine tree. Not exactly a well-planned sidewalk.

Most importantly, these sidewalks are mostly in terrible condition, heavily broken up resulting in several trip hazards. Those uneven surfaces also make it virtually impossible to operate snow removal equipment in the winter, and even if they were in better condition, some of them aren't wide enough for such equipment. Nor are they wide enough to accommodate things like wheelchairs or walkers, and therefore they don't meet provincial accessibility requirements.

When faced with 15 old, lightly used, and heavily degraded sidewalks, that, if they were to be replaced would cost ratepayers more than $175,000, versus spending less than $15,000 to simply remove them and return the ground to grass, I think council is wise to support removal.

Had any of these sidewalks provided important connectivity to other sidewalks, or been the only safe path for pedestrians along heavily travelled roads, then there would obviously be some cause for debating the merits of replacement, but from reading through the report, and having spent some time locating these sidewalks for myself, the recommendation to remove them just makes sense.

Abandoning some of our existing infrastructure will become more and more common, I suspect, as municipal councils come to grips with the enormous infrastructure dilemma facing them in the years to come. While it might be somewhat easy to abandon some old broken down sidewalks, as we've seen with council's recent grappling over what to do about bridges 021 and 022 on the Holland-Sydenham Townline, many of the decisions to come will be far less easy to make. I expect we will also likely see some heated debates around whether some lesser travelled roads that are currently topped in asphalt should revert to gravel in the years to come as we are already seeing in other municipalities in North America.

Over the decades, we've built an impressive portfolio of infrastructure that has allowed us to travel and transport goods from one location to another with ease, and has allowed fresh water to flow from our taps, and waste water to be flushed away from our homes and businesses. But as all of this glorious infrastructure continues to age, it's proving to be financially unsustainable for the governments of today who have limited funds to meet a mountain of infrastructure demands.


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