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Alberta infrastructure debt pegged at up to $16 billion

Kathleen Renne
Alberta infrastructure debt pegged at up to $16 billion

Alberta’s infrastructure debt is somewhere between $2 billion and $16 billion according to the Alberta Road Builders and Heavy Construction Association (ARHCA).

The association released a study detailing the numbers – A White Paper on Transportation Infrastructure Debt in Alberta – in August 2014 and so far the debt hasn’t been paid.

"We’ve always said there’s a deferred maintenance problem," said Gene Syvenky, the paper’s author and CEO of the ARHCA.

He added that the estimated figures are for repairs to existing infrastructure and does not include monies required for new builds.

"We’re surprised by the high end of the estimate …This is the money we need  and this is the money we don’t have," he said.

Syvenky said the debt estimate is so wide ranging because rural and urban transportation networks don’t have systems in place to rate existing road conditions and that only provincial roads employ a rating system.

Syvenky explained that the $2 billion figure assumes the road network in the province is in fairly good shape, whereas the $16 billion number comes into play if roads are in far worse condition than imagined and require extensive reconstruction.

He said the problems with transportation infrastructure funding began about 20 years ago.

"What happened was the re-allocation of provincial funds to more pressing items … When you look at budget deliberations about health and education, road maintenance isn’t very compelling," he said, adding Alberta’s population growth and the greater numbers of people using the provincial transportation network have added to the issue.

Syvenky said that while governments may not think transportation infrastructure a very captivating issue politically, he posits that transportation networks are the backbone of the economy.

"Eighty per cent of goods and services move via road networks in the province," Syvenky said, adding transportation networks need to be recognized as vital and that many of the maintenance problems lie along Alberta’s 31,000 kilometres of provincial highways.

Al Kemmere, the president of the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties (AAMDC), an organization that contributed data to the White Paper, echoed Syvenky sentiments.

He referenced Alberta’s rural-transportation network, which encompasses 75 per cent of the province’s roads and 60 per cent of its bridges.

"The heart of our economy starts in rural Alberta … If these roads are not strong enough to carry product, it’s going to affect everyone’s ability to earn revenue," he said,

Kemmere  said in rural municipalities alone, a minimum of $70 million is needed to keep up with existing maintenance and to stop the infrastructure deficit from getting worse.

He said deteriorating bridges, in particular, are a growing concern.

"A lot of our municipalities have had to put weight restrictions on bridges. They can still move people, but these restrictions slow down the movement of product that drives our economy," he explained.

"Over the last three years of provincial budgets, the bridge file has not been eliminated in the budget, but the government has zero-funded it."

The ARHCA said the most cost-effective way to maintain transportation infrastructure is to apply maintenance measures within the first five to seven years of pavement.

Then, once a road hits the 15-year mark, the maintenance requires a smaller investment, instead of a major rehabilitation and reconstruction project.

Syvenky said one of the ARHCA’s main positions is that repairs and maintenance shouldn’t be a political decision.

"If your house has a hole in the roof, you shouldn’t have to defer its repair because you want to buy new drapes, even though drapes may be more politically attractive," he said.

Syvenky said the provincial government needs to find the money to cover transportation infrastructure repairs before a catastrophe like the 2006 overpass collapse in Quebec strikes.

"If taxes have to go up, then so be it," he said.

He added that an alternative might be to earmark the monies flowing from the federal Gas Tax Fund to municipalities for transportation infrastructure investment only.

Syvenky said the White Paper on Transportation Infrastructure Debt in Alberta has stimulated good dialogue within the sector and within Alberta Transportation itself.

In fact, he said, Alberta Transportation reviewed the figures in the White Paper and concluded that, even if transportation infrastructure debt is not as high as $16 billion, it’s "at least as high as $8 billion."

"In the last provincial budget, just prior to the May election, money for roads and rehabilitation was increased by $100 million per year for five years. That was a good step in the recognition that you have to pay attention to road rehabilitation," Syvenky said.

Others believe this foresight is needed.

"What we’re hoping to do is emphasize a longer-range vision for transportation," Kemmere said, pointing to the highway between Calgary and Edmonton as an example of why long-range planning is needed.

"When they built that highway in the late 50s and 60s, they built it for expected traffic volumes in the late ’80s and early 90s" he said.

"Now, that’s 20 years behind us, and there’s no vision for expanding it for the future."

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