Tuesday, March 10, 2009

 

MAD RUSH ON INFRASTRUCTURE PRJECTS

The country's budget bill is now in the Senate for approval. Both the Prime Minister and his Minister of Finance want the Liberal dominated Senate to move the spending estimates through quickly, so "shovel-ready" projects can get underway as spring arrives.

Obviously there is much merit to getting the billions of dollars earmarked for existing infrastructure repairs and massive new endeavours to get underway within an appropriate time frame. After all they are meant to bring our ailing economy back off of life-support.

Certainly the Conservative Members of Parliament are "good to go". I noted a news story just a few days ago that the Government's M.P.'s have already fanned-out across their ridings with promises of funding for more than 500 so-called "shovel-ready" infrastructure improvements.

In the rush, it seems to me that we may be missing a last chance to explore new visions. Across North America since the Second World War, timid economies have been brought back to life with massive infusions of infrastructure cash. To some degree thank God for the current "great" downturn because our crumbling highways, bridges, sewer systems, and public transportation systems are once again being saved from crumbling into one massive pile of broken concrete.

There are thousands of kilometers of roads, highways and streets more than half-a century old...in the case of some sewer and water systems more than a century old...We are in pretty bad shape but we assume these systems are always going to be functioning for us. For instance Montreal's system of elevated highways built for Expo 67 and the 1976 Olympics is crumbling. Inter-provincial highways, including Ontario's famed "400" series roads, carry more than four times the number of vehicles they were designed for. More and more of those vehicles are heavy trucks which pound the highways and bridges far harder than vehicles of the past.

The infrastructure stimulus cash will help. But, it is unwise to think that money is all that is needed. That is what's wrong with our current rush to get the "shovel ready" projects off the design tables. In Ottawa the city is looking for an infusion of billions of dollars to build a rail system under the downtown core. What started-out as a proposal for a light-rail transit system has mushroomed into a full fledged subway system which the city can ill afford. And, there are absolutely no plans to rebuild, let alone maintain, the system once it starts to crumble (as surely it will) in 30 or so years. That is just one example.

Solutions to the problems of the national infrastructure system which we are about to rebuild and expand in a mad dash to kick-start the economy require new ideas about how we design, build, finance and maintain the country's transportation backbone.

Planners, engineers, designers and the politicians they work for need to re-examine all of their assumptions. Perhaps build good, rather than perfect. And...find new sources of revenue. The government's stimulus initiatives are designed to repair, improve and build infrastructure facilities that will last another 30 to 50 years: But what happens then?

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