The Woolwich Observer
Maintaining infrastructure only if government makes it a priority
The outages in the Texas power grid indicate not only the perils of deregulation, but of officials failing to do the most important part of governing: making sure the infrastructure is solid.
To save costs and to thumb their noses at government oversight – the state has for decades refused to connect to the wider national grid to avoid federal regulations – Texas failed repeatedly to weatherize its energy infrastructure. This despite past examples of the bad things that happen when, for instance, wintry weather strikes.
Instead of spending perhaps millions to upgrade the system hit similarly a decade earlier, the costs will run into the tens of billions to restore the grid, repair the transmission equipment and settle insurance suits for all of the damaged homes.
It’s a clear case of being penny wise – though in this case “wise” – and pound foolish.
Jumping all the way north to Woolwich, local officials are having an infrastructure debate of their own, albeit without the same political partisanship.
At issue here is the fate of the Peel Street Bridge in Winterbourne. Specifically, whether or not to tear down the existing structure and spend several million dollars to replace it. Leaving aside the heritage value of the 1913 steel span and the community’s desire to save it, the idea of a new bridge fails the cost-benefit analysis: the crossing would be used by a few horse-drawn buggies, but at too high a cost.
Even in isolation, spending that kind of money doesn’t make sense. More so when you consider that the township doesn’t have the money, and would have to borrow it. Yet more so when you look at the fact Woolwich already has a substantial infrastructure deficit measuring into the tens of millions, projects far more pressing and with more impact than a new bridge in Winterbourne.
Woolwich, like every other municipality in the country, is way behind in setting aside money to replace aging roads, bridges, sewers and facilities. It faces an infrastructure deficit of more than $60 million over the next decade for road and bridge work alone.
For years we’ve coasted on the infrastructure built decades ago: we never saved for a rainy day, and now the skies have opened up. The township has too much on its plate to add to the list (or to spend money on non-essential services, but that’s another story).
Mounting expenses apply to all of the infrastructure in the township, from water pipes to municipal buildings. Every government, in fact, has a growing list of things that need repair or replacement. And every government has been bad for years and decades at setting aside enough money to pay for those necessities. Most can’t even get a handle on today’s operating costs, let alone save enough for tomorrow.
The federal and provincial governments are the worst when it comes to fiscal mismanagement, from outright corruption and incompetence to deficit-spending in the name of buying votes. It’s the result of short-term thinking and a longstanding policy to kick problems down the road for future governments to deal with. Eventually, the squirrels come home to roost. And eventually is now.
Woolwich’s historic bridges are a small part of a very long list of infrastructure projects in need of funding – the township repaired the Glasgow Street bridge, voted to close the Middlebrook Place span and is now planning to restore the Peel Street bridge for pedestrian use only.
The township doesn’t have the means to tackle the most pressing infrastructure jobs, in part due to the sheer volume and in part due to past choices – perhaps-unneeded projects and bloated operational costs, particularly staffing – that have drained coffers even as tax rates soar.
When money has to be rationed – a lesson politicians seem to understand when it comes to roads and bridges, but not transitory, unproductive operational spending – deciding on priorities becomes a numbers game. The numbers aren’t in the bridges’ favour.
What the Peel Street bridge does have going for it is the historical value. Unfortunately, we place a very low value on such things. That’s particularly true in this region, where historical-and-aesthetic have often been torn down in favour of functional-and-ugly, though that’s an affliction found in North American society in general.
Platitudes will be mouthed, but in the end it’s the money that does the talking. Behind everywhere else and facing more pressing concerns, Woolwich is stuck with making choices.
It’s not alone in that regard. Infrastructure deficits are a well-discussed issue at every level of government; past practices and short-term thinking, a mainstay of politicians, caused very little money to be set aside over the years since much of the infrastructure, from sewer lines to hospital buildings, was being built back in the halcyon days of a growing economy and much lower costs.
To its credit, Woolwich has been setting aside more money for a rainy day – i.e. the coming infrastructure storm. It’s been allocating some surplus funds to reserves, and has in place a special infrastructure levy: it’s another tax, but with the money allocated for a real need rather than being flushed away. In that vein, however, the township has done little to rein in its operating budget in order to make a real dent in the deficit rather than taxpayers’ wallets. The extra funds set aside are a good start, but they have not kept up with the growing list of projects. Even at today’s estimates – real costs are likely to be much higher, as there’s a history of being well off the mark with forecasts – the township is losing ground.
Again, that’s not unique to Woolwich. Despite plenty of lip service, governments continue to do very little in the way of long-term planning, let alone actual follow through. The township is somewhat ahead of the curve, even if progress is limited.
At the municipal level there’s always been an expectation that senior levels of government would come through with the money to pay for the bulk of infrastructure projects. Now, with budget woes of their own
The other day I told Jenn that I was seriously considering the purchase of a new and relatively expensive Kevlar canoe and, surprisingly enough, she did not object in the slightest. I believe this was due to the fact that she was wearing her headphones at the time.
But I also think she is beginning to understand that as old canoes age, gravity takes a greater hold on them. After all, she is not averse to science.
For instance, my old 17-foot, 36-inch beamed Coleman canoe was not always the 500 pounds it is today. No, when I first bought it some 22-years ago, it weighed a mere 87 pounds and it was easy for me to pick up, throw over my shoulders and load atop any vehicle I owned.
In the last four or five years, however, it has gained a lot of weight, I suspect due to increased gravitational pull on the material. And while I can still throw it over my shoulders and load it atop any vehicle we own, I generally require a long nap after doing so. But this cuts into my fishing time, which is problematic.
I’m not sure why canoes are affected so much by gravity these days, but I know I am not the only one who thinks this is the case. In fact, it has got so bad that, my friends and I now consider the mere act of placing a canoe atop a car to be a team sport – which is why we now prefer just to watch from the sidelines.
On the flip side, I think Jenn also honestly believes – probably because I repeat it constantly as she sleeps – that Kevlar canoes are desirable, mostly because they are lighter to begin with and, probably because they are made of space-aged material, not nearly as affected by gravity.
By my calculations, the average 45-pound Kevlar canoe would take another 20 years before it reached the weight of the Coleman canoe I have now.
As convincing as this argument is, it is not, by itself, enough to tip the scales, especially given the weight of a Kevlar canoe’s price tag. That’s why I have started a concerted public relations campaign designed to convince Jenn
I need a Kevlar canoe more than we need the money for lesser things such as food.
Primarily, that campaign consists of me grunting, groaning, wincing and holding my back in public on the days following the loading and unloading of my canoe. There are other equally embarrassing noises utilized to good effect as well.
I believe all of these factors are starting to soften her stance on the potential purchase, which will happen in the spring before the lakes open up.
In the end, however, it will eventually devolve into a financial decision. She will have to weigh the price of a new canoe against the price of keeping the old one. If we were in the U.S., this would be a no-brainer, medical costs being what they are. But thanks to our free public health care system, the financial benefits are not nearly as obvious.
Regardless, I think that framing this as a financial decision is a huge mistake, for how can you put a price tag on my happiness? Plus, it is a whole lot less expensive than a new car with a lower roof.