Some Canadian cities face a bigger infrastructure "crisis" than others

Post by Daniel Fontaine in

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Five people died in Montreal when an overpass collapsed. Some say Canada's growing infrastructure deficit in our cities is to blame.

As our cities age, the issue of infrastructure replacement becomes increasingly more critical. In some Canadian cities, the lack of infrastructure investment has not only resulted in the loss of life, but it has also resulted in a huge financial crisis.

Many of Canada’s eastern cities are much older than those found in the west. As a result, cities like Montreal and Toronto are in desperate need of infrastructure investments to help replace ageing sewers and road.

In Vancouver, the city has had a long-standing policy of replacing 1% of its infrastructure on an annual basis. In theory, every 100 years, the City’s infrastructure is completely replaced. This policy has not only helped to ensure that Vancouver doesn’t face the type of crisis older cities face, it has also resulted in Vancouver having the smallest per capita infrastructure deficit.

The Canada West Foundation did some analysis on the infrastructure deficit, and here is what they found:

Urban infrastructure in Canada has become a serious issue. The combined infrastructure deficit of the six big western Canadian cities (Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, and Winnipeg) for the 2003 fiscal year totals $564 million, which is a conservative estimate. On a per capita basis, Winnipeg has the largest annual infrastructure deficit ($298), followed by Edmonton ($188), Regina ($167), Calgary ($150), Saskatoon ($147) and Vancouver ($87). Annual infrastructure
deficits add to an accumulated infrastructure debt, which is the backlog of needed maintenance, rehabilitation, and replacement of existing infrastructure assets and unfunded capital projects that are deemed necessary to accommodate growth in the cities. Most big cities in the West are reporting that their infrastructure deficits will rise in the future. Estimates of the total municipal infrastructure debt in Canada have been as high as $57 billion. Estimates of the infrastructure debt for all governments in Canada (federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal) could be as high as $125 to $130 billion.

In 2007, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimated that the municipal infrastructure deficit is about $123 billion and climbing. In their report titled The Coming Collapse of Canada’s Municipal Infrastructure, they stated the current situation was a “crisis.”

Their report states:

The $123-billion estimate includes “sub-deficits” for key categories of municipal
infrastructure: water and waste water systems ($31 billion), transportation ($21.7 billion), transit ($22.8 billion), waste management ($7.7 billion) and community, recreational, cultural and social infrastructure ($40.2 billion).

Vancouver’s success in keeping their infrastructure deficit low raises an interesting question. As part of a new federal/provincial/municipal infrastructure accord, should Canada’s major cities be mandated to implement a 1% replacement policy? Would this type of legislation help to ensure that older cities such as those found in southern Ontario and Quebec keep up with their infrastructure needs? How would cities react?

Replacing water pipes and overpasses never gets the same attention from the civic politicians as the opening of a new community centre or park. That's why in so many cities new investments in the "non-sexy" infrastructure takes a back seat to the more media-friendly structures. However, study after study indicates that cities with modern infrastructure are more likely to remain ahead of the curve in terms of their overall competitiveness.

Clearly if senior levels of governnment mandate a 1% replacement policies for Canadian cities, it should come with the tools necessary to fund it. However, in the case of Vancouver, they seem to have come up with a good method to help lessen the burden. What do you think?

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