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BARRIE McKENNA

Canada's crumbling infrastructure: the silence is deafening Add to ...

Elections should be the time to discuss the big issues. That's rarely how it works. True to form, the parties aren't talking seriously in this election about health care, climate change or Canada's role in two foreign wars.

Here's another big one that probably won't come up in Tuesday's televised leaders debate: the decrepit state of Canada's public infrastructure.

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Consider Montreal's Champlain Bridge, a 50-year-old landmark and a vital transportation link to the bustling South Shore and beyond. Ravaged by salt, it is literally falling into the St. Lawrence River, chunk by chunk. Engineers believe it might have, at best, 10 to 15 years of life left in it, and even the belated $212-million Ottawa has earmarked for repairs might not be enough to save the bridge.

If a major earthquake were to strike the city (and Montreal sits in an active quake zone), Canada's busiest bridge likely wouldn't last more than a few minutes. "This bridge can be expected to collapse, partially or altogether, in a significant seismic event," engineers at Delcan noted matter-of-factly in a recent report. That's not "might" or "could." The experts are pretty much saying it will.

It's hard to underplay the urgency. A replacement to the Champlain Bridge could take 15 years, or the outer lifespan of the existing bridge (cost: at least $1-billion). That's just one city, and one bridge. Across Canada, key pieces of vital public infrastructure badly need fixing or replacing. There are roads and bridges, water and sewer plants, public transit networks, parks and ports.

Here's a number to ponder: $123-billion. That's what the Canadian Federation of Municipalities estimated it would cost, four years ago, to renew aging municipal infrastructure. Roughly 60 per cent of the money is needed for transportation, water and sewage treatment.

That's just part of the story. As the country grows and expands, new demands emerge, such as transit expansions and new sewage treatment capacity (cost: $115-billion). Now we're at $238-billion and counting. And that's just for municipal infrastructure.

The Champlain Bridge is owned by the federal government. Meanwhile, the major highways that Canadians depend on, both for commuting and travelling between cities, are largely in provincial hands. The provinces spend roughly $8-billion a year on transportation projects. They arguably could spend a lot more and our highways still wouldn't match what Americans have.

And the electrical grid needs $293.8-billion in improvements, according to a Conference Board of Canada report.

How did we put ourselves in this hole? Neglect, underinvestment and skewed priorities.

The Conservative government's $60-billion Economic Action Plan is all but gone, and the legacy is underwhelming. A quarter of the money supposedly went into infrastructure. As much as $20-million more was spent advertising the plan.

In its eagerness to get the money out the door fast to "shovel-ready" projects, the money was sprinkled across the country on mainly small, local projects. The Action Plan website highlights transmission lines and waste-water projects. More typically, the money went to hockey rinks, park benches and planters. Small-town thinking applied to big-world problems.

It was an opportunity lost. Ottawa and most of the provinces are now in austerity mode, and there will be less money for infrastructure in the years ahead.

If there is a silver lining to this grim situation, it just might be buried in another Conference Board report. It turns out governments aren't very efficient at pricing and planning our infrastructure. We waste too much water (a Canadian uses more than the twice the water a Briton does). And we don't allocate our infrastructure very efficiently. We provide transit to ever-distant suburbs, but don't make these users pay the real cost, or even the incremental cost of expansion.

We can probably squeeze a lot more out of the dollars we spend, the Conference Board argued. "Enhancing pricing policies and productivity will create or free up resources that can be used to better achieve other social objectives, while also helping to reduce the infrastructure gap," the report concluded. "All options will have to be on the table."

Simply curbing our water consumption to international norms would cut the infrastructure gap by $4-billion, the report pointed out.

It's inevitable that Canada will have to spend a lot more on large, critical infrastructure. Conservative Leader Stephen Harper might point to his pledge of loan guarantees for Labrador's Lower Churchill hydro project. But that's for the future. It won't do anything about all the infrastructure that needs replacing now. Big challenges demand big thinking - especially at election time.

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