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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

This country is falling apart (really) Add to ...

On Sunday, a broken water main knocked out the power in affluent midtown Toronto. The whole neighbourhood shut down. Movie theatres and restaurants closed, and guests at the dark and cold Four Seasons were shipped across the street to the Park Hyatt. "Eight hours of cold feet for the well-heeled," snarked a clever headline in the next day's paper.

Be forewarned, though: The next laugh may be on you. Toronto has 1,400 water main breaks a year. The city's system is aging and decrepit, and some of the pipes in the downtown core have hit the century mark (although the most corroded ones date from the 1950s and 60s). The city will spend $127-million this year to patch and replace corroded pipes, but it's an uphill battle.

There's nothing special about Toronto, either. Every day, 700 water mains break in Canada and the United States, resulting in floods, sinkholes and a colossal waste of drinking water. In some cities, 40 per cent of the drinking water is lost through leaks. This infrastructure, which was built to last 50 or 100 years, is literally collapsing beneath our feet. The costs of replacing it are staggering. Canada alone needs $31-billion to fix its water systems, according to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. The Environment Protection Agency says U.S. water systems need $33-billion over the next two decades.

Our cities may look lovely, like an old house with a new coat of paint, but they're seriously run down. "Across Canada, aging infrastructure has reached the breaking point," says Saeed Mirza, a McGill University engineering professor who specializes in infrastructure and its woes. "When you don't maintain your structures, eventually they will collapse." And then, of course, they'll cost even more to fix.

To stimulate their economies, both Canada and the United States are pumping billions of money into infrastructure spending. The engineers say it's a drop in the bucket. A report Prof. Mirza prepared for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimated that Canada needs to spend $123-billion just to put crumbling bridges, roads, sidewalks, and transit systems back into passable shape. A similar report by the American Society of Civil Engineers says the U.S. needs about $2.2- trillion - twice as much as is now budgeted by all levels of government. "The problems are immense," Prof. Mirza says.

So why can't we just get on with it? It's tempting to blame shortsighted civic leaders, stingy governments and tax-allergic citizens. But the real problem may be what's termed "demosclerosis" - the progressive loss of a democratic government's ability to adapt.

James Fallows's insightful cover story in the current Atlantic magazine describes this phenomenon as perhaps the greatest crisis facing America today. It's clear that Canada is challenged too. Demosclerosis develops in a country as more and more special interest groups build up, like plaque, over time. Each one takes its little bite out of the national wealth, and the result is a system that's great at distributing benefits but terrible at solving problems.

Aging water mains are one symptom of those problems. They are literally out of sight and out of mind. Voters get mad when they break down, but the rest of the time they don't care much. Water mains have no lobbyists to pitch for them, no political capital to offer. As Mr. Mirza says, "There are no photo ops in fixing a sewer."

Our grandparents and great-grandparents were proud of the roads, water systems and bridges they built. They saw it as nation-building. But we've largely lost the ability and the will to take on long-term projects for the common good. Mr. Fallows quotes Stephen Flynn, from the Center for National Policy, who says, "Our forebears invested billions in these systems when they were relatively much poorer than we are. We won't even pay to maintain them for our own use, let alone have anything to pass to our grandchildren."

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