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We aren’t taking care of our infrastructure — and it’s not just a Toronto problem | TVO Today

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Toronto has budgeted $14 billion over the next 10 years to either maintain or replace assets. (Don Denton/CP)

One of the most interesting numbers in our politics relates to the state-of-good-repair backlogs various governments accumulate. It’s not the most commonly cited economic stat and probably not the most useful, overall. But I do find it interesting. It tells a story the others don’t. A lot of the stats we could zoom in on can have pretty complicated explanations. They may tell us something important, but they don’t always tell the story, if I can put it that way.

State of good repair, though, tells a story. And a bleak one.

You might have seen the news this week that the city of Toronto is way behind on capital spending for existing infrastructure. The city has budgeted $14 billion over the next 10 years to either maintain or replace assets, but the city’s own numbers show that the actual amount needed to maintain service levels — and we’ll come back to that shortly, never fear — is actually $40 billion. The city is short $26 billion over the next decade. Astute readers will be aware that Toronto doesn’t exactly have an extra $26 billion lying around.

And, ahem, as noted above, that’s just to maintain existing service levels. No one seems particularly pleased with city services these days. The homeless shelters are full, the roads are crumbling, whether the TTC is going to be working that day is a crapshoot, and the city recently celebrated the fact that it was able to open most of the bathrooms in parks ahead of schedule. Seriously. The mayor made a point of talking about this. Well, okay. Congratulations, Toronto, on having your bathrooms open early. That’s a little bit sarcastic but also a little bit sincere, and I’m not sure which is sadder.

How we got here is easy to explain: We haven’t spent enough money on taking care of stuff. We fell behind on basic maintenance and didn’t have a realistic plan to retire and replace assets as they reached the end of their natural lifecycle. There are always arguments around the margins with this stuff. People will say, well, we shouldn’t be rebuilding the Gardiner Expressway, because of how expensive that is, or we should fund the police a bit less or raise property taxes a bit more. Sure. Fine. Have all those arguments. But even those measures, which have relatively large fiscal consequences, are absolute rounding errors next to the tens of billions of dollars we refused to collect and spend on repairing and replacing the stuff we already have.

I think I am like the typical voter at least insofar as understanding — without excusing — that politics is what it is and that, sometimes, building something new is politically controversial and takes a long time. There is risk in doing new stuff. People may hate what’s chosen or what it looks like or where it’s going or who’s building it.

But state-of-good-repair backlogs aren’t that. They’re about taking care of the stuff you already have or, at most, replacing it. The initial political capital and hassle are mostly upfront, and what follows is the relatively easy part: stopping things from falling down from neglect.

But … we don’t. Or at least we cut it awfully close!

And that is what I find interesting. Falling behind on state of good repair is the least justifiable government screwup. It has big consequences, and there’s no real excuse for it. There just isn’t. Take care of your stuff. It’s one of the most basic jobs of governments. And we still can’t quite stick the landing.

The counterargument here is that municipalities don’t get enough of a share of the total taxes paid. And that’s true, no doubt. But I had a feeling that that is as much excuse as explanation, because I had a hunch that the other levels of government aren’t great at this either. So I spent some time last night poking around a bit into the state of good repair at the provincial and federal levels, too. The data isn’t as neat and clean there; the reason we have detailed figures for Toronto is that the province requires municipalities to collect and report on such data. This makes sense, since the majority — an outright majority — of publicly owned infrastructure assets in this country are owned by municipalities

But there is some data on the state of provincially owned assets, and I found the comparison interesting. According to a Financial Accountability Office report from 2020, which was the most useful data I could find, Ontario’s provincially owned assets are in better shape than Toronto’s, but there’s still a major backlog in state-of-good-repair spending, to the tune of $16 billion. Ontario’s greater challenge seems to be stuff we haven’t built, frankly, instead of stuff we have built and haven’t taken care of. We’re spending hundreds of billions on new assets and will need to spend further huge sums to staff up — the health-care system being a particular disaster — so that we have the people to actually operate the new assets we’re building. A lot of that money is stuff we should have built years ago and are racing now to catch up on.

So Ontario looks better than Toronto but suffers from much the same problem: we haven’t done a good job taking care of stuff as a province, either, and that’s interesting, too. I guess spending on basic upkeep isn’t any more attractive to a premier and their MPPs than to a mayor and their councillors.

What if we bounce up an order of government? The federal government actually owns only a tiny percentage of all publicly owned infrastructure assets in Canada, and finding centrally kept stats on the state of good repair there is proving difficult. But, in blunt terms, the municipalities own just over 60 per cent of the public infrastructure in this country, the provinces and territories about a third, and what little is left is divided up between Indigenous governments and the federal government. Federal assets include military facilities and equipment, plus National Defence infrastructure, RCMP and Canada Post property, some immigration-related and border assets, and also some maritime assets, among a huge mix of other random items. There isn’t a central stat that usefully summarizes the state of all of this, but the largest single item is National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces, and the state-of-good-repair backlogs there are notorious and well known, so infer from that what you will.

I wanted to include what information I could on provincial and federal backlogs because I worry there’s a risk that the eye-watering figure for Toronto may cause people to think that this is a Toronto problem. It’s not. Toronto is a particularly bad example of a much bigger, widely shared problem. We aren’t taking care of our things.

In a country where there is a lot of bad news right now — more than enough to go around — this might be the worst news of all, in a way. This is extremely basic stuff. It’s about as non-controversial as governing is ever going to get. The consequences of failure are obvious and widely felt. This ought to be an easy problem to avoid, let alone solve, and yet every order of government, all across the country, is struggling with it.

It’s appalling. It is making us poorer and our lives worse. There is no excuse. Yet here we are.

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