Patti Page once sang about that “muddy road ahead... detour.” The gospel/pop song might end up gaining a new millennium audience, as rural municipalities attempt to deal with the spring task of getting roads back into shape.
The past winter’s frequent freezes and thaws combined with heavy rainfall and flooding to make the task a real challenge. Highways have potholed sections that look like a lunar landscape; byways that are usually somewhat usable by this time are rutted and muddy, leading to a rash of complaints, even a petition or two, and observations our roads are in a lot worse shape than they used to be. No one is arguing with those observations. Infrastructure deficit is a reality.
Make no mistake, this area is grateful for the substantial infrastructure grants received in recent years. News the Ontario government plans to create a fund of $100 million for 2013-2014, to help small, rural and Northern municipalities build roads, bridges and other critical infrastructure, is welcome indeed.
The unfortunate truth is those one-time grants accomplish what they are designed for – helping small municipalities undertake the occasional large project. They do not address the huge amount of work it takes to keep the rest of our roads and bridges in decent shape.
Our local roads are not like the ones the ancient Romans built – horrendously expensive, massive stone structures designed and constructed to last for millennia. And they have - some are still in use. By comparison, our roads were built cheaply and quickly, of gravel and asphalt, designed and constructed to last a couple of decades. Most have not.
When most of our roads were built, no one dreamed of the volume of traffic that would be using them, not to mention the size and weight of today’s transport trucks and farm machines. Nor did anyone consider the impact of changing climate, or for that matter, the changing legal climate that holds municipalities responsible for the safety of roads, bridges and other infrastructure. Most certainly, no one imagined much of the responsibility for maintaining those roads (up to modern standards of safety) would end up being downloaded to municipalities.
Rural municipalities do not have the resources to build, maintain and replace our present system of roads and bridges with our present funding model – property taxes topped up with one-time grants and a lot of borrowing.
One possibility that has been discussed at the municipal level is fewer, but better maintained roads. Another is channeling a larger portion of revenues from fuel taxes to roads, or at the municipal level, raising taxes to a level that permits better road maintenance. Municipalities could minimize the damage by closing roads for a few weeks during the spring thaw, or enforcing load limits on vehicles.
Some municipalities have discussed, only partly in jest, the possibility of toll roads. While none has tried a small town version of Highway 407 (yet), requiring industries to cover at least a portion of necessary improvements on access roads is fairly routine.
The concept of a toll booth every 10 or 20 kilometres and at major intersections is not that big a stretch. There might be opportunities for investment, perhaps allowing a private company to put up a bridge or buy a section of road, and charge people for using it. Residents who live on a certain stretch of road might chip in and fill the potholes, and then get to levy a toll on all users.
Seriously, transportation is key to our way of life in this part of Ontario. A few of decades ago, when gas was cheap, Ontario hitched its economic wagon to road transportation, did a pile of road and bridge building and tore up the railroad tracks. Then the province started handing over responsibilities for roads to the level of government least able to pay, municipalities.
Now many municipalities are faced with the double challenge of roads and bridges that need a lot of work, and declining assessment. Municipalities will need to work together, and partner with the province to find answers – long-term, sustainable answers, not one-time quick fixes. And they need to start now, because our transportation infrastructure will not survive another 20 years of inadequate funding – a muddy road ahead, indeed.