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Prince Rupert, B.C., needs about $250-million to carry out standard infrastructure upgrades and repairs. One-fifth of the city’s water lines were installed before 1925.Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Infrastructure and affordable housing are at the centre of municipal elections across British Columbia, but in communities where liquefied natural gas development is proposed, the question of infrastructure is not about high-tech upgrades or new services.

It is about making sure the bare bones of the city – sewers, roads, bridges – can survive a population explosion, and municipal elections have become referendums on who can get the infrastructure ready in time.

"It's about who we feel can get things in order.

"We still need to get our basics down," said Sheila Gordon-Payne, who is running for mayor of Prince Rupert.

She has promised to conduct a review of how infrastructure repairs are planned and executed and find ways to improve the process.

Incumbent mayor Jack Mussallem says Prince Rupert is still playing catch-up after a "decade of darkness" when one of its largest employers – the pulp mill – closed and the town's population plummeted.

Today, Prince Rupert needs about $250-million to carry out standard infrastructure upgrades and repairs. One-fifth of the city's water lines were installed before 1925.

Kitimat's government has spent the past five years asking the province for help repairing the rusting Haisla Bridge

The bridge is the only way to get from the residential part of town to the industrial sector, where most people work.

Cities such as Prince Rupert and Kitimat have constantly recreated themselves from the remains of past booms.

They were built when companies and the provincial government invested aggressively in civic infrastructure in anticipation of northern development.

Large chunks of it have never been replaced.

Now, says Greg Halseth, a geography professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, the provincial government waits for final investment decisions from LNG proponents before spending on infrastructure.

Municipalities are left with decades-old infrastructure that is reaching its expiration date, but they can't afford to replace it.

"Local governments aren't allowed to put that kind of money away – they're pay as you go, and they're not allowed to run deficits.

"So they haven't been able to bank infrastructure investment money to pay for stuff coming now," Mr. Halseth said.

Mr. Mussallem faces three challengers in Prince Rupert's Nov. 15 election who say he is not preparing fast enough for LNG development. Mr. Mussallem says the city's industrial tax base has begun to expand under his leadership, but that takes time.

"Prince Rupert has no vision for its future.

"We often react to problems," said 29-year-old mayoral candidate Lee Brain. "LNG has been on the radar for the last two years, but we've only become proactive in addressing it in the last six months."

Mr. Brain would seek provincial and federal grants for infrastructure upgrades, and pursue joint ventures to improve the city's water lines.

Prince Rupert needs more people and businesses paying taxes to afford infrastructure upgrades, but it can't serve them properly without the upgrades.

"It's absolutely way past the point where we need to take our destiny into our own hands," said mayoral candidate Tony Briglio. "I think we're going to see some good industries come to town, but we need to show we're helping ourselves first." Mr. Briglio says he would re-examine how the city's debt is structured and move forward with the sale of the old pulp mill site.

In the absence of provincial funds to fix the Haisla Bridge, Kitimat mayor Joanne Monaghan has been looking at expanding housing options.

Ms. Monaghan, who is seeking re-election, says she has developed a housing task force and is working with LNG proponents on new housing.

Kitimat has already seen a population boom and a sharp rise in housing prices. None of this surprises the mayor, who has been hearing warnings from mayors in northeast B.C. for years.

"They've told me, 'For goodness sakes, get some housing ready – because when they say go, it's going to go,'" Ms. Monaghan said.

"So get ready."

Mayoral races decided by acclamation, 2014