|This photo taken in 2006 shows one lane of the Anthony Henday bridge over the Sturgeon River almost complete. File photo.|
The economy is in overdrive, yet Alberta’s roads are stuck in a rut. With 10,000 new residents pouring into the province every month and traffic volumes soaring, resources for the improvement and rehabilitation of existing roads just hasn’t kept pace. Alberta’s Department of Infrastructure and Transportation calculates 6,000 kilometres of the province’s highways are functionally inadequate, while the list of deferred maintenance projects that reached $1.1 billion in 2005 continues to grow.
In response, the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA) and the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties (AAMD&C) urged the province in 2005 to allocate $2.668 billion over 10 years to bring the province’s roadways up to “acceptable standards.” The Alberta Transportation Awareness Partnership (ATAP), an umbrella group of road-building, government and stakeholder organizations says we’ve got a provincial highway “infrastructure deficit” and is urging the province to allocate more dollars to overhaul provincial highways.
“If Canada is going to compete in the global economy, transportation networks are critical to our long-term success,” observes Gene Syvenky, president of the Alberta Roadbuilders and Heavy Construction Association (ARHCA). “That means we need to improve our infrastructure. Our balance sheet is in order and Alberta is in the black, but it has a debt in infrastructure that has been under-supported for the sake of eliminating previous government debt.”
“We need more spending on roads in general and rehabilitation in particular,” agrees Tim Hawnt, executive director of the Program Management Branch for Alberta Infrastructure and Transportation. “At our present rate of maintaining highways, it’s going to be 100 years until we get around to renewing the roads we’re building right now.”
It’s a scenario Hawnt calls “a huge black cloud looming. Fifteen years ago, we were rehabilitating 1,500 km of road a year. Now, to keep up, we need to rehabilitate 1,500 to 1,800 km a year, but because of cost increases and flat budgets, we’re only rehabilitating 300 km.”
Do the math, and the crisis is evident. The Alberta Motor Association, from its headquarters in Edmonton, has been talking about the building problem for 15 years, increasingly concerned that Alberta’s level of investment in road construction, rehabilitation and maintenance has not keep pace with growth in population, the economy and vehicular traffic.
“A sustainable strategy must be in place to ensure adequate funding to protect the public’s investment in the existing infrastructure,” says Don Szarko, AMA’s director of advocacy and community services. “Government funding needs to recognize the importance of the highway system to the economic health and competitive viability of the province.”
According to Statistics Canada, Alberta is in the midst of the strongest period of economic growth ever recorded by any province in Canadian history. To put that claim in perspective, the current economic upturn is greater than the Hong Kong-driven B.C. boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s; more vigorous than Ontario’s glory years in the 1960s; bigger even than any of the Alberta booms of the 20th century.
Edmonton’s 2006-2015 long-range financial plan estimates $8.6 billion is needed over 10 years to accommodate growth and rehabilitation. The funded portion of the plan is nearly $4.8 billion, while the unfunded portion, or “the infrastructure gap,” is about $3.8 billion.
The shortfall in capital funding means Edmonton has been deferring maintenance on existing infrastructure and delaying the construction of new roads, bridges and sewers. Last September, a city report forecast at least 83,000 new residents will flood into the capital city over the next five years – a population boom that will only exacerbate current transportation bottlenecks.
With city streets and freeways jammed with cars, and bus and Light Rapid Transit (LRT) usage at record levels, Edmonton’s city council allocated $1.6 billion for construction over the next five years but admitted this isn’t as much as the city needs. “The streets are already “busting at the seams,” concedes Mayor Stephen Mandel. “It takes an hour to get home sometimes.”
Propelled by increases in the price of oil, the cost of construction projects is also continuing to rise sharply. Those increased costs are gobbling up any extra funds available to build and repair roads and overpasses and buy much needed new buses.
That’s why many construction projects are being delayed, including repairs to streets and sidewalks and improvements to public transit, including LRT lines in Edmonton and Calgary. Work has continued, albeit slower than many would hope, on Edmonton’s 40-km Anthony Henday Drive.
Its southwest portion opened last fall, connecting Highway 2 in the south to Highway 16 in the west. The Anthony Henday Drive Southeast segment is set to open this autumn, providing an additional 11 km of ring road between Highway 2 in the south and Highway 216 in the east. The urgent need to deal with aging infrastructure is at the heart of the push by Canada’s 22 big-city mayors to address what they call the “fiscal imbalance” between what Ottawa scoops up from cities and what services they receive in return. “For 20 years we have talked about the importance of cities and the challenges they face,” says Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel. “The time for action is now.”
A report from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), released in June 2006, pegs the country’s infrastructure deficit at $60 billion – and growing by $2 billion each year. Some estimates now put the deficit at more than $100 billion. An action plan released by the mayors of the largest cities calls for a permanent revenue-sharing plan with Ottawa and a national transit program.
In November, a Canadian Automobile Association report entitled Roads and Highways: Critical to Canada’s Competitiveness, called for roads and highways to be made a national priority. It called on the federal government to take a leadership role and develop a National Highway Policy, with sustainable, long-term funding from coast to coast.
“What we need to understand is that investment in highways and roadway infrastructure expansion is not really a cost, it is an investment,” Hawnt says. “We in Alberta are fairly remote from our markets, so in order to give our manufacturers a level playing field to compete with industrial suppliers, our system has to be better than good – it has to be excellent.”
AMA’s Szarko believes dealing with the challenge of the infrastructure deficit is going to require a mix of public pressure, political will and a comprehensive approach that includes more resources for public transportation. “The challenges are many and start with the way we plan our communities. Mobility, safety, economic prosperity and quality of life are all tied to what we do with our transportation networks. If we don’t act, it’s a legacy of ruin that will be handed onto the next generations.”