Fixing the Potholes Requires Digging Deeper

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The interview also claimed that since 2014, we have redone over 1,000 kilometers of streets, and on average things are getting better.

However, given that we have over 8,300 kilometers of streets in total, it looks like this (not in any way sustainable) level of spending is only doing about 40% of the work we need done every year. I’m not an engineer, but that level of maintenance is clearly insufficient.

So, why the claim that streets are getting better on average? We should remember that just a decade ago, places like Waverley West barely even existed. So all the streets in Waverley West are still new enough that they haven’t needed work yet. Same for Amber Trails, parts of Transcona, and the list goes on. Add up the numbers in consecutive annual reports, and we quickly see that we’ve been adding as many new kilometers of roads as we’ve repaired old ones. That’ll tend to skew up the “average condition” of our roads.

But crucially, in the very near future, all those streets will also require repair. That’s right. Every single street from, as Councillor Lukes is fond of saying, “a city the size of Brandon,” will be added to the repair queue. That’s in addition to the ones we repaired in 2014–2015 when we first started this never-before-seen road spending spree (they’ll need redoing again), PLUS all the other streets we still haven’t gotten to yet.

I’m not a city planner, but that’s clearly a recipe for city decline by design.

So yeah, we have record road spending, sure. We need more money, fine. But, how much more? And is that target even achievable? The interviewer never asked…

I wrote a piece on this very subject a few months ago. If you don’t want to re-read it, the general gist of it is:

  • We have $15+ billion worth of roads (from the City’s 2018 State of Infrastructure report) which need to be repaired/replaced periodically, forever.

  • Using 4% as a replacement rate (which allows for a rehabilitation at 25% cost in years 10, 20, 30, and 40 and a full replacement at 100% cost in year 50), we’d need an additional $600 million PER YEAR over and above what we’re spending now.

  • That kind of money would require a doubling of our property taxes, or the complete elimination of the police and fire departments and STILL having to find another $100 million per year (the entire Community Services department, for example), or else a 2% provincial sales tax (PST) increase (if we’re asking the Province to pay).

Realistically, the money needed doesn’t exist, and it never will—even if we ask the Province to pay. I mean, remember what happened to the last guy who tried to increase the PST to spend on infrastructure?

Now, a 4% replacement rate is the number used by every developer’s cost-benefit analysis when they present a new suburb to the City (even though, according to reports from City staff that say the initial, up-front capital cost “only accounts for approximately 20–25% of the lifecycle cost of owning and operating an asset,” implying we need to be spending at an 8–10% annual replacement rate).

But ok, we don’t like 4%… how about 3%? Heck, why not just cut that in half and use 2%? That’s enough for a full replacement every 50 years, with NO maintenance in between (no pothole filling, no crack sealing, no mill-and-fills, no periodic rehabs). Cool, cool. And now we only need a 50% property tax increase…just for roads. Makes the current 2.33% seem inconsequential, doesn’t it? And of course, none of that increase covers anything else we might want to take better care of, like sewers, trees, libraries, rec centers, arenas, pools, civic buildings, fire halls, and police stations.

This is an unfillable pothole.

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