There are certain things in life that we take for granted: that when you flick the switch, a light will come on, or when you turn the knob on a faucet, that clean, fresh water will come out.
Sometimes we realize how grateful we are to have these things in our homes. Most of the time, though, we simply expect these things to be there and work when we want them to.
It’s why you feel so silly when you try to turn on the lights when you know the power’s out. It’s why you get so frustrated when the hot water doesn’t warm up.
It’s also why we complain about potholes and why once they’re being filled, we complain about roadwork slowing our commute.
One thing’s for certain: we can’t take the infrastructure we use each day for granted when we mark our ballots this fall.
This city, and municipalities across the province and country, are facing a significant infrastructure crunch now and in the coming years. It costs billions to build roads, sewer lines that lead to massive wastewater-treatment centres, regional dumps and water-treatment facilities that make it safe for us to consume one of life’s essential elements.
In St. John’s, our infrastructure — the building blocks of our civilization — is aging and breaking down. The needs for more clean water sources, more roads, and upgrades to existing infrastructure are one of the most expensive and essential components to making a city liveable.
It’s been estimated by McGill University that Canadian municipalities will need to spend $123 billion to repair, replace and renew municipal infrastructure — 60 per cent of which will have to be spent on water, sewers and transportation.
The total bill has been estimated by other groups as being as high as $238 billion — $7,000 for each Canadian.
The City of St. John’s faces some unique challenges when it comes to upgrading the bricks and mortar that keep us safe and healthy. From unplanned neighbourhoods to hills and valleys, the city isn’t a simple flat grid like those built much later in the country’s history.
A 500-year-old city is much like a 100-year-old house — without new shingles, upgraded pipes and other maintenance from time to time, it will crumble around you. But 100-year-old houses have charm, unique alcoves, and well-made fixtures meant for use.
Which means you sometimes have to improvise, use what you’ve got more efficiently and build on the parts you like.
In this city, the number of lane kilometres of road has increased to 11,000, and the public works department is admitting that it’s struggling to get lines painted on them — let alone the new bike paths the department has taken on. There have been five major water main breaks in the city in the last two years. There have been sewage backups in the east end, which required the city to shuffle millions of our tax dollars to repair. Goulds needed $9.8 million in water and sewer upgrades as of 2008. With inflation and the cost of construction, those costs have certainly increased.
The City of St. John’s already spends 28 cents for every litre of water it purifies, and will have to continue to increase water taxes to bring online yet another watershed in the coming years.
The question to ask your candidates when they come knocking for your vote is. what their plans are in terms of using existing infrastructure. How do they plan to effectively grow the city without sprawling out?
Ask, because a lack of quality infrastructure puts a cap on the city’s growth potential. And ask because our city’s regulations require new developments to build roads and sewers, meaning they’ll have to be maintained and repaired by the next generation of St. John’s residents. Ask because we need a sustainable way to create a desirable place to live and work.
There are plenty of solutions to the infrastructure problem, not the least of which is using opportunities we have as a result of our sudden wealth to solve problems before they crop up. By creating green roofs we can mitigate run-off rather than using expensive piping systems, for example.
Another option could be the creation of more regional partnerships. We would like our candidates to tell us how they plan to build on partnerships with other communities.
The quality of city infrastructure — whether here or in any other city — is based on the expectations of the residents in the community. In this city we’ve allowed those expectations to affect our planning decisions. Snow-clearing, for example, has dictated that the frontages of homes have to be a certain width.
Which is why we all have to come together at this important time in our history to elect a council that will address the needs of the people who live here.
So, if infrastructure matters to you, the quality and administration of it, ask the candidates you encounter how they plan on making the infrastructure you pay for best work for you. Then vote.
Denis Mahoney is the chairman of the St. John’s Board of Trade.