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Fix the roads in my ward

Dec 04, 2017

When there’s too little money to fix the city’s roads, there’s no shortage of councillors who think their wards should get a bigger slice of the budget. Last week’s final debate over the 2018 capital budget offered a forum for these complaints and a priorities lesson from staff on some bitter realities for deteriorating streets.

The context is an accumulated infrastructure maintenance deficit approaching $3.5 billion that grows by nearly $200 million a year. Unrepaired roads make up about two-thirds of this annual shortfall and that means many that require reconstruction are instead being left to fall apart.

So when councillors Terry Whitehead and Doug Conley demanded to know why road rebuilds in their wards are not in the budget, they got a blunt response from staff that included “once a road gets to a point where it needs to be reconstructed, it will stay there.”

The director of engineering services, Gary Moore, declared that the city needs to “prioritize on the roads that give us the most return on investment” so it concentrates scarce dollars on shave-and-pave resurfacing rather than more expensive total rebuilds.

“For every dollar that we spend on shave and pave, we have to spend four to six dollars to do a reconstruction,” Moore told Whitehead. “So if you have a road that’s beyond the shave and pave and it’s not programmed for water and sewer replacement, it’s not getting done. There’s no money.”

Whitehead acknowledged that the budget is tight but argued that his ward has a higher percentage of roads at the reconstruction stage and therefore should be getting a bigger slice of the budget although he didn’t specify what should be sacrificed to achieve this. Moore reminded him that the average state of repair in most wards is about the same and provided a detailed breakdown of road spending.

He explained that most of the $55 million roads budget “goes to bridges, road operations, technical studies, traffic operations, street lighting” plus an annual $200,000 a year that each councillor gets to personally allocate to his or her ward. That leaves “$23 million to deal with road reinvestment” of which $8.2 million is used for shave and pave, $7.5 million for major arterial roads, and $4.4 million for rural roads leaving very little for street rebuilds.

“In the entire city we spend $3.4 million ripping up roads and replacing them if they’re not associated with a water main or a sewer,” Moore stated. “We have a list of fifty with ultimate needs and we can afford three a year. We need to spend $160 million a year and we get $23-25 million.”

Moore detailed the way roads staff decide priorities. He said they examine “all roads and their condition” and consider factors such as safety, traffic flows, whether it’s a bus route or a “major road into a business park” that supports commercial or industrial users. They also look at the replacement schedule of water and sewer pipes and the timing of expected development that could affect the road.

Later in the meeting Doug Conley got his turn to plead for more road money in his Stoney Creek ward. He argued recent spending on major thoroughfares such as Centennial Parkway and Queenston Road that have enhanced average road conditions in his ward shouldn’t preclude spending on residential streets. He suggested the same effect occurs because of new roads being built to service development.

“Of course that may bring the average up but it sure doesn’t help the roads that have been there for 30 or 40 years,” he contended. “I’ve got communities, some in lower Stoney Creek, some in upper Stoney Creek, that are 60 or 70 years old. There are no storm sewers. They’ve got ditches.”

The discussion led to suggestions that more discretionary monies might be provided to individual councillors. More such slush funds would continue a trend that began several years ago with a deal that gave $1.7 million a year to wards in the former city of Hamilton to offset tax equalization with the former suburbs.

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