/The toll of roads 

The toll of roads 

By Chad Ingram

I t’s budget season which means local politicians and municipal staff are doing an annual dance of attempting to complete as much work as possible while keeping property tax increases as palatable as possible.

As is perennially the case roads costs make up a large chunk of any municipality’s budget because well roads are expensive. And while that may seem self-evident it’s important for taxpayers to understand the scope of that burden.

There was an infrastructure boom in Ontario during the 1950s and 1960s with roads highways and bridges built all over the place. Much of that infrastructure is aging or crumbling and over time a number of roadways that were once provincially maintained were downloaded for municipal governments to look after. In the context of Haliburton County County Roads 21 121 and 503 are examples of such roadways.

Collectively amongst Ontario municipal governments the infrastructure gap – that is the annual financial shortfall just in maintaining existing transportation infrastructure – totals billions of dollars per year. Unlike the federal or provincial governments municipalities have no constitutional authority; they exist solely as creatures of the provinces and can only do what their respective provincial governments tell them they can do. Ontario municipalities remain restricted in the ways they are allowed to generate revenue and property tax remains far and away the main vehicle.

That isn’t to say the province doesn’t help. Earlier this week for example funding allotments for the year under the Ontario Community Infrastructure Fund were announced and collectively the County of Haliburton and its lower tiers will receive about $650000. That may seem like a lot until you start looking at the numbers. Even the small municipalities of the county have roads budgets of millions of dollars per year.

Algonquin Highlands for example is receiving $50000 from the OCIF which you know is nice but consider a project to upgrade a portion of North Shore Road for which the township has repeatedly been denied grant funding is worth about $800000. That’s one project.

Minden Hills is receiving about $100000 from the OCIF which again is handy but consider that the rehabilitation of the Sedgwick Road bridge – a small bridge on a very rural road – will cost $1 million. The township’s public works director recently told council that ideally Minden Hills could use about $4 million per year just to adequately maintain its existing infrastructure. That’s without taking anything new into account. That’s just to keep existing assets at par.

When a roads project is deferred it also means the cost of the project will increase over time due to inflation. The cost of a project that is deferred for a number of years can easily increase by hundreds of thousands of dollars and inflation also means that it costs municipalities more year over year to maintain just their existing infrastructure.

Now municipalities could try to save some money by reexamining/reducing service levels but presumably this would go over poorly with residents. They could try generating additional revenue by say instituting tolls on some roads but presumably that would go over even worse.

In the meantime while it can come as unwelcome news it’s likely that property taxes will continue to get ratcheted up each year.