Alberta’s roads suffer from more than just potholes

It’s that time of year again, when the snow and ice peels back to reveal roads that tell a sad story of harsh winters, wear and tear, and in many cases, pure neglect.

As much as we all complain about potholes, they aren’t actually our biggest issue. The telltale pits in our roads are merely a symptom of a much larger problem with our aging transportation infrastructure network.

A recently convened group of transportation infrastructure specialists is seeking to bring about much-needed change in how we build, maintain and operate our roads.

Recognizing the looming infrastructure deficit with our province’s roads and highways, the Alberta Roadbuilders and Heavy Construction Association formed an advisory panel in late 2018.

This timely initiative brought together knowledgeable public and private sector representatives with a shared purpose. Their goal was to develop a set of policy recommendations that would improve our transportation infrastructure outlook, because right now, according to Statistics Canada, we are failing the grade.

At 15.6 per cent, Alberta is leading the way in Canada, with the largest percentage of highways in “very poor” condition. Equally alarming is the fact that 75 per cent of Alberta highway bridges are in fair condition or worse, and more than half of all rural roads are also in fair to poor condition.

With the population predicted to reach 6.4 million by 2046, things will only get worse unless someone makes a move — now.

That’s why the advisory panel put forward recommendations to modernize Alberta’s approach to transportation governance and accountability.

The panel had three clear priorities that should be on our collective radar: a need for better preservation of our roads, a much more effective and transparent public infrastructure agency to get best value for tax dollars, and a better plan for the future.

First and foremost, our reliance on deferring repairs to the existing road network is not sustainable. Responsible asset managers know that constant upkeep requires an annual commitment in dollar terms of one or two per cent of asset value.

Failure to make that investment leaves Albertans with a fiscal ticking time bomb. The cost of reconstruction is five times the cost of preservation on an average kilometre of highway.

Over the past several years, we have seen a steady decline in provincial road maintenance and rehabilitation. Unfortunately, at a time when we should be investing in our roads, the province has reduced its commitment to planned road and bridge maintenance and renewal by 29 per cent.

The continued degradation of our road network will ultimately put pressure on future capital budgets to address these short-sighted decisions.

At a minimum, Alberta needs to invest between $700 million and $1.4 billion annually in basic preservation of our roads — more than double the current level of investment.

Only a long-term, binding commitment to start taking action now will slow the degradation of our highway network.

Secondly, Alberta needs an arm’s-length public agency that can implement a repair and construction plan using an appropriate procurement solution for each project.

This independent agency can schedule work based on sound road management principles, rather than the annual budget and political cycles.

Government would still fulfil its role of setting the standards for safety and road condition of the network that becomes the objective targets for the new agency to meet. But Yo-yo spending and political interference in the delivery of road projects creates wasted effort and costs taxpayers.

This type of model has been successfully adopted in other countries and encourages efficiencies that more accurately represent prioritized needs. By devolving some responsibilities to the arm’s length agency, the government would be able to hone its focus on the high-level network system plan, driver education, licensing, public service messaging and enforcement.

The third key recommendation from the panel is for the province to develop a strategic vision and a more enduring approach to transportation asset management. Alberta must develop a solid 20-year capital plan to ensure we are anticipating the demands of future generations.

In this modern infrastructure model, the government, as owner, will focus on system planning to facilitate economic and social goals, funding and taxpayer oversight of an arms-length management agency that schedules and procures services from the private sector to optimize value for taxpayers.

This is the kind of effective management and transparency that Albertans deserve from a government that oversees Albertans’ $70-billion highway infrastructure investment portfolio.

Today, the message from the advisory panel is clear: Alberta’s road infrastructure requires a greater level of investment to protect our assets, a new independent agency with transparent decision-making on road infrastructure projects, as well as a long-term vision to facilitate growth in our economy and quality of life.

We all have an important role to play in creating and maintaining a sustainable road infrastructure network.

It’s time to stop complaining and work together on viable solutions that will smooth the road ahead.

To view the panel’s full set of recommendations, visit drivingimprovement.ca

Ron Glen is chief executive officer of the Alberta Roadbuilders and Heavy Construction Association.

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