City infrastructure: something’s gotta give

The Toronto Star’s Paul Moloney reported last week that the city now carries $4.4B worth of net debt, as a result of a 20 per cent increase in 2010. Moloney talked to Deputy Mayor Doug Holday to get the scoop on how this administration is going to reduce debt levels:

“I guess we’ll have to look at capital requests with a fine-tooth comb,” Holyday said. “It’s things like the Fort York bridge, which was to be entirely borrowed — it went over budget and became unaffordable.”

“As we go forward, I wouldn’t be surprised if we found other projects that could wait or be reduced in some fashion. We’re just not in a position to keep increasing the debt load.”

via Toronto debt $4.4B and rising –

In other words: we’re going to cut things. Because previous councils have spent far too much on all the entirely unnecessary infrastructure we’ve seen spring up in recent years. Like, um… huh.

The reality is that a significant percentage of the city’s capital costs go to entirely necessary repairs to existing infrastructure. It’s never easy or cheap to run a major city, but it gets progressively harder and more expensive when all the stuff that helps the city function — the pipes, the roads, the tracks, the transit vehicles, the public housing — get to be at least 30-40 years old.

It’s worth noting that the last time a city agency got lax with prioritizing state of good repair costs in their capital budgets, people literally died.

Even ignoring the cost of maintaing the infrastructure we’ve got, no one could reasonably argue that a fast-growing city in a super-fast-growing region can or should make do with the infrastructure we have. As reported by the National Post’s Natalie Alcoba, the Toronto Board of Trade released a report last week calling for the expansion of transportation infrastructure to be a major issue in this fall’s provincial election:

Toronto-area residents are stuck in some of the worst traffic around, spending on average 80 minutes a day commuting, according to regional transit agency Metrolinx. That could hit 109 minutes by 2031. The congestion costs the Toronto-area economy $6-billion a year, a figure Metrolinx says will rise to $15-billion in 20 years if significant action isn’t taken.

“This is a critical issue, this is a top issue up there with the issues of health care, with the issues of education,” said [Board of Trade president Carol] Wilding. “At this point, taking options off the table, or a bidding war that goes down the path of what we don’t want to do, is not the right discussion to be having.”

via Funding to tackle ‘a critical issue’: Toronto Board of Trade | National Post.

The belief that solving the fiscal challenges facing the city is a simple matter of cutting a few wasteful things is, I think, one of the more dangerous elements of the Rob Ford administration. Serious, structural shortfalls — both fiscal and relating to infrastructure — require serious leadership, especially with regard to intergovernmental affairs.

Of course, Councillor Doug Ford stepped it after the Board of Trade report, fulfilling his role as Requisite Diversion and proposing some dumb magical private-sector thing where the Gardiner Expressway would be three storeys high and people would live in it. Problem solved.


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