Of the many contenders for most enduring image from British Columbia in 2021, two stand out: the burning embers of the town of Lytton, razed to the ground by wildfire, and the sight of vast sections of vital provincial highways washed away by historic rains and flooding.
Yes, the real-world effects of climate change became the dominant theme in the province last year.
Given this, one expected it would also be the overarching focus of the B.C. government’s latest budget, which was tabled in the legislature on Tuesday. And while it was certainly highlighted in bold by Finance Minister Selena Robinson, the dollars to begin the massive job of building back from the various calamities appear to be missing.
There have never been any firm estimates of what it might take to complete repairs to the highway infrastructure damaged in the November floods, but there is consensus that the final tally will be in the multiple billions of dollars. After all, four highways – 1, 3, 5 and 8 – took substantial hits.
The Coquihalla Highway (No. 5) is a crucial commercial route. It was reopened to limited traffic earlier this year but will not be fully functioning until a rebuilding plan is designed and acted upon. Highway 8 likely suffered the most damage of all, with several sections, over several kilometres, washed away into the nearby Nicola River.
Keep in mind, government officials said last year that the highways would have to be rebuilt to structurally withstand the inevitability of similar weather events in the future. That could also translate into greater costs.
Aside from highway infrastructure, much of the damage to homes and farms during the floods was caused by dike failure. Earlier reports estimated the cost of upgrading the system in Metro Vancouver alone to be in the neighbourhood of $9-billion. And that forecast is a few years old now.
Now let’s take a look at what the B.C. government intends to do about all that.
The budget allocates a little more than $1.5-billion over three years to address the province’s continuing disaster response and recovery efforts. There is $5-billion apparently coming from the federal government but when that will be and where the money will be spent is not set out.
There is little money set aside to begin work on any of the major highways destroyed by the floods. There are funds to initiate engineering studies and tendering, but no dollars that would be used to pay contractors to begin the work itself. So that means either construction won’t begin during the three-year time frame of the government’s current fiscal program, or it will and the money will be found somewhere at a later date.
There is certainly nothing in the budget that would give communities affected by various disasters hope that things will soon be returning to normal. For instance, under the category of “flood response and recovery,” the government sets aside $800-million in the current 2022-23 fiscal year, $500-million in the one that follows and $250-million in the final year of this fiscal plan.
As for money to repair dikes, the government has allocated $120-million to municipalities to help address a number of recovery matters, including dike repairs.
Clearly, the government is praying nothing untoward – such as more disasters (even while conceding these events are likely the new normal) – happens in the intervening period, because their problems will only get worse.
Ms. Robinson was asked a couple of times by The Globe and Mail on Tuesday to address the lack of funding to start rebuilding some of the critical infrastructure. She said planning is under way and there will be more to announce in the coming months. This may be true, but the fact is there is no specific money in this budget to repair these roads and get them functioning at 100-per-cent capacity.
Maybe the costs won’t be as great as the images of destruction suggest. Maybe there won’t be overruns and delays. Maybe there won’t be a shortage of workers. Meantime, those British Columbians directly affected by the damage these highways sustained are going to have to wait – how long we don’t know.
I say all this recognizing that no government has money for everything. And the dollars we’re talking about here are substantial. But governments have a responsibility to be open and transparent with the public, even if they rarely are.
When it comes to the damage caused by climate change-related catastrophes in B.C. last year, the bill is still being tabulated. And it may be some time before it’s paid in full.
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