Column: Building more, bigger, better – can we afford it?

Column: Building more, bigger, better – can we afford it?

The View From Here/Martha Wickett

From a media perspective, Charlie Ward is a man of few words.

Now retired, Ward was the director of operations for the City of Salmon Arm for 16 years, retiring in April 2007. Although he was always helpful with requests for information, he was not one for lengthy exchanges. Emails, for instance, were succinct. Sometimes one-word succinct.

However, in my recollection, he was never at a loss for words when talking to council about some subjects, roads being one of them. During budget deliberations, he pushed and lobbied and pushed some more for asphaltic overlays (road paving) to be funded adequately. His words popped into my head unbidden during Monday’s council meeting.

At that meeting, council heard a report from staff about the need to increase the transportation parcel tax, which is used for asphaltic overlays. Council heard that the city’s road rating, arrived at in order to update the city’s pavement management plan, is now below 50, on the low side of a ‘poor’ rating.

In 2011, the last time a formal road report update was done, the city’s rating was 82, or on the high side of ‘fair.’

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The staff report notes that as roads deteriorate, they become exponentially more expensive to restore, something Ward used to say. The report also points out that a deteriorating road network is due to a combination of factors including cost increases of labour and asphalt as well as inadequate funding.

Ward was a firm believer in maintaining what you have. “Why build a bunch of new stuff if you can’t maintain it?” he asked during an interview prior to his retirement.

Rob Niewenhuizen, the city’s director of engineering and public works, explains the decisions can be complex. When a road is paved, it’s not always known if the infrastructure underneath is in good shape. Sometimes paving isn’t done because water and sewer upgrades are scheduled for the near future. And so on.

And there are the political aspects. What politician wants to be responsible for a large tax increase? I’ve noticed in more than one municipality how tax increases tend to be larger soon after an election and get very small prior to the next one. After all, voters can be a fickle lot.

We have our sights set on a certain standard of infrastructure, services and housing. But is it realistic? Do we need it? Can we pay for it in the long term? Can the Earth pay for it?

Through it all, I think Charlie Ward was onto something. If we can’t maintain it, should we build it?


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