Paving (or patching) the way forward

I’m no economist. But, like most self-appointed experts on everything (AKA “journalists”), I have theories about some things, and this theory struck me as I was driving down Oxford Street last week, swerving like a driver who’d had too many pina coladas, dodging craters large enough to swallow a SmartCar.
Workers won’t fix all these damaged roads this year. Not all of them. And not properly.
It’s obvious to anyone who drives any kind of vehicle that many of Halifax’s streets desperately need work. It was a tough winter: tough on people and even tougher on pavement. HRM swears it’s doing its best to keep up with the demand for fixes (slapdash patches which, sadly, begin crumbling within hours of being tamped down), but we can all see that the ground-heaving cycle of continuous freezing and thawing is winning.
Certainly, the maintenance crews will come out if we ever have a stretch of sunny weekdays and continue to patch up the worst spots, but this winter’s damage was so widespread that patching seems inadequate. Despite that, though, there’s no way all of the streets that need proper paving jobs will get them this summer.
Perhaps I’m being naïve, but I honestly wonder: why do the governments that once built the infrastructure we’ve come to rely on (I’m thinking 1950s and ’60s, here) no longer seem able to maintain what we have? There doesn’t seem to be a single level of government that has the will, the desire (or is it actually the money?) to properly maintain our existing infrastructure—from roads and bridges to hospitals and transit systems.
Transport Canada admits on its website that “after several years of heightened spending to meet transportation needs and to counter the effects of the economic crisis, governments across Canada, including the federal government, have turned their attention to managing or reducing deficits.” Translation: “We tried to buy your love through some paving projects, but that didn’t work, so we’re going to go back to doing what we wanted to do in the first place.”
Meanwhile, the Nova Scotia government’s Five Year Highway Improvement Plan maps out the government’s approach to repairing and maintaining roads and bridges. Given that they say cost is more than $300,000 to repave a single kilometre of highway (why should it cost that much? that’s a whole other column), the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal says that “while severely damaged roads will continue to be addressed, a portion of our highway improvement budget will be set aside to help improve paved roads before they become too damaged and need more costly repairs.” So, patch jobs it is—a plan they claim is “more sustainable in the long term.”
And then there’s HRM. According to HRM’s Infrastructure Management web page, the municipality has a “Pavement Condition Management System” that helps determine “the most effective use of public funds for capital street improvements.” It combines two approaches: “best first,” which puts the priority on “rehabilitating streets which are in the best condition,” and notes that “one disadvantage to this approach is the higher operational costs of maintaining the poor streets until it is time for reconstruction.”
The other is called “worst first.” “While this achieves better taxpayer recognition,” says the site, with perhaps unintentional cynicism, “it has its disadvantages. The cost of the reconstruction is higher, so workers can do fewer streets. The streets in good and fair condition deteriorate to a poorer condition and in time, operational costs will be higher to maintain these streets which are deteriorating prematurely.”
In other words, if they could get away with it, they’d just opt to patch all the holes, but every once in a while they have to pave a whole street, just to keep those nitpicky taxpayers happy.
Ultimately, what all this means (and I don’t mean to gloat) is that my theory is right: the roads in Halifax—even the ones that need it most—won’t be paved this year.
So brush up on your swerving skills, I guess. It’s going to be a challenging summer.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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