Monday, 22 October 2007

Taxes Are What We Pay for Civilized Society Department: Collapsing Bridges and Other Woes of Getting around Urban Areas

The report on the collapse of the de la Concorde boulevard overpass in Laval north of Montreal is damning. Released last Thursday, it cites shoddy workmanship, lack of direct responsibility and probably poor maintenance for the sudden disintegration of a part of the bridge, which fell killing five persons in cars passing underneath it.

The commission was headed by a former premier of the province, Pierre-Marc Johnson, and heard hours and hours of testimony from experts and those involved. The response of the provincial government was immediate: a pledge of $3o billion over five years to rebuild and maintain the province’s highway infrastructure and the establishment of a new agency with a mandate to do just that.

All of which is probably good, because of two historical facts. First, highway infrastructure all over North America is getting old, having been built during the great construction boom of the 1960s and early 1970s. Second, this grand period of expansion was followed by budget compressions which meant that not only were funds for maintenance cut, but governments frequently slashed the departments which were supposed to make sure that maintenance work was done properly.

The conclusion is unavoidable: we don’t save money in the long run by being niggardly. Just as individuals must make sure the roof on their houses don’t leak and that surfaces are painted if they want to keep their dwellings liveable, so as societies we have to invest in maintenance. This is not waste, this is stewardship.

As it happens I was in Southern Ontario last week, in Toronto and at a conference at Brock University in St. Catherines. Driving through the area, several things struck me. Most annoying was the time it took to get around driving. The distance from Etibicoke on the western edge of Toronto where I stayed Thursday night to the center of St. Catherines is about 65 miles according to Mapquest, and should take about an hour and a quarter. On Friday afternoon, however, it took me more than three hours. Part of the snarl was due to general going-home traffic particularly around Hamilton, I suppose, but my colleagues in St. Catherines said there also had been a great deal of construction work on the Queen Elizabeth Way and the bridges over the mouth of Hamilton Harbour.

Bravo if the latter is the case: once we build roads, we must keep them safe. But once again I was struck by what a soul-killer commuting by car must be for those who do it regularly, and how urban sprawl destroys not only the landscape but also good agricultural land. The Niagara Peninsula is one of the most productive areas in the country, yet it’s clear that subdivisions are eating into it rapidly.

By the way, the reason I stayed out in Etibicoke was because I didn’t want to drive into the center of Toronto for a meeting with my publisher. Instead I took the subway (10 minutes walk from the B&B) and street car, and arrived at my appointment in less than 25 minutes for $2.75 each way. Couldn’t park for more than half an hour for that, and it probably would have taken more travel time.

There is much to think about in that comparison, it seems to me.

No comments: