The pitfalls of potholes

We’ve just returned from a family gathering in Saskatoon. While we were there, the city was winding up its Fringe Festival on the downtown section of Broadway Avenue and was completing celebrations of its annual exhibition.

We’ve just returned from a family gathering in Saskatoon. While we were there, the city was winding up its Fringe Festival on the downtown section of Broadway Avenue and was completing celebrations of its annual exhibition.

Saskatoon is a little more than twice the population of Red Deer, built with a riverine park area down the middle that’s about twice the size of ours. They have two downtown zones (one on either side of the river, naturally), which seem about four times the size of ours — or will be until we complete our Alexander Way street renovation and Riverlands development.

From what I saw during our visits, there are quite a few close comparisons between life in Saskatoon and Red Deer, if you can make allowances for size.

Both cities made good use of their river valleys as park zones, both have a younger population demographic, and both are experiencing rapid growth and upward pressure on housing.

And both are living with challenges of meeting today’s expectations of urban life, in a climate that wreaks a lot of winter damage to city streets.

Right now, groundwork is being laid for some interesting discussions in Saskatoon’s next budget. As happened in Red Deer, they’ve had a period of spending restraint on infrastructure that got stretched a bit too far.

Planning documents call for a “B” standard for all streets and lanes (whatever that is), but their most recent inventory gives them an “E” standing. We don’t need the letters to understand what that feels like.

Meeting expectations is going to take a lot of money. Above what the city is already spending on road repairs, there is an estimated $20 million annual shortfall. The shortfall is bigger than the street budget itself.

There is a long-term plan to get Saskatoon back to the B standard, but a recent poll of 11,000 residents showed six of 10 were willing to take a pretty significant tax hike to speed things up.

That parallels Red Deer, where our Ipsos Reid poll found street work was the No. 1 service concern for taxpayers, and the only municipal sector that did not get a high approval rating.

So how big a tax hike are they looking at? Well, their last budget saw a general 4.9 per cent tax rise, a quarter of which was dedicated to topping up street clearing and maintenance.

This time around, their council is taking things quite a bit further.

There are two proposals on the table: one calls for an additional 2.94 per cent tax hike for each of three years; the other would be a special $170 levy on every residence, on top of taxes, for three years. Both are only for street repairs.

Council will decide which it’s to be in December, and from the letters to the newspaper that I’ve seen, it looks a lot like discussions of taxes in Red Deer.

Probably like municipal tax discussions in any city.

Here’s where I think Red Deer has handled the situation a little bit better.

Our dry period of no infrastructure spending lasted about 14 years, but we had one good oil boom after it ended. We’ve done a fair amount of catching up, and in that regard are quite ahead of Saskatoon.

A city twice our size, with a winter that really kicks the stuffing out of asphalt, Saskatoon spends about $16 million a year (from city documents I could find) to keep up its road system.

We spend about $12 million (rough figures, for comparison purposes only).

No wonder people there are complaining about the potholes.

The closer government is to the people, the harder the rubber meets the road, so to speak. There is no other topic that occupies near as much phone time, face time and emails for a city councillor.

Our council discovered that truth quite a while back, and I believe a majority of Red Deer residents support the comparatively higher spending in this area.

But some people are suggesting it be more, even if that means cutting back in areas like recreation, water, sewer and transit services — all of which get the highest ratings in resident opinion surveys.

City streets cost a lot of money. Roadways and parking use more surface area in our city than any other purpose. More than homes, businesses or parks.

Even to make a small improvement visible is hugely expensive. So deciding to do that needs a strong consensus.

For the most part, we’ve got that in Red Deer (there will always be some not satisfied, either way). But when a city lets things slide for too long, finding consensus for catch-up can get difficult.

I like Saskatoon. I have family there. I hope they find their consensus. But it will be costly.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.

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