Let’s not neglect Alberta’s roads

How would you feel if you read a notice in the elevator you were taking to the 30th floor that said 43 per cent of the cable carrying you was in fair to poor condition?

Or the pilot announced that 43 per cent of the plane’s wings and fuselage was in fair to poor condition? You would be forgiven for feeling outrage and concern about your safety being placed at risk.

Thankfully, governments are good at regulating the maintenance of those transportation providers, ensuring they are in excellent condition, and both elevators and planes have exceptional safety records.

So if it’s not acceptable for elevators and planes, why would you accept a similar risk with Alberta’s road infrastructure?

Well, there’s bad news on that front. A recent report from Statistics Canada confirms that 43 per cent of Alberta’s highways are in fair, poor or very poor condition. This means right now in our province, there are more than 13,500 kilometres of roads requiring some rehabilitation or reconstruction.

As road quality deteriorates, annual structural maintenance costs skyrocket. For example, instead of paying $3,000 per kilometre for general upkeep, the outlay for road rehabilitation can be anywhere between $163,000 and $248,000 per kilometre. And when the road is beyond repair, total reconstruction can cost as much as $850,000 per kilometre.

These expenses simply aren’t practical. Alberta’s transportation infrastructure debt was estimated to be nearly $6 billion in 2014, and that figure will only continue to grow if we fail to take action.

Unfortunately, at a time when we should be investing in our roads, the province has reduced its commitment to planned and needed investment to maintain and renew roads and bridges by 29 per cent.

Without adequate resources, it’s impossible to maintain our existing investment or to keep pace with the needs of our growing population.

While other jurisdictions are exploring alternate management approaches and more sustainable funding models, Alberta remains locked into the status quo.

Given the state of Alberta’s provincial finances, the current model of management will lead to infrastructure cuts, as was necessary in the 1990s. However, this time, the road system is in worse condition and can’t absorb years of cuts.

This time, we have to earn our way out of the financial pickle we’re in. Fiscal restraint doesn’t have to mean cutting service if we support our political leaders when they are brave and experiment with new asset management models.

Whether it’s a main artery, bridge or culvert, transportation infrastructure investments underpin our economy’s ability to grow and function. In 2017, more than $8 billion worth of product exports travelled on our highways and roads toward their final destination.

For landlocked provinces such as Alberta, infrastructure renewal and innovation is key, because other viable options simply don’t exist. Now, more than ever, Alberta needs a better model; an improved priority-setting system; a renewed commitment to invest; and an enhanced partnership with the public and private sector to build and manage our transportation system.

The Alberta Roadbuilders and Heavy Construction Association wants to bring stakeholders together. We think it is time to discuss the missing strategic funding connections that are hampering our progress.

We can no longer afford to sit idle. This problem is one that requires our collective attention right now. We all need to care. But possibly most importantly, we need someone who can take the wheel and ensure that our next smooth, great flowing section of economic productivity isn’t too far down the road.

Ron Glen is CEO of the Alberta Roadbuilders and Heavy Construction Association.

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