Waterline breaks make headlines, but infrastructure decline is the bigger story

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by Construction Corner

We got yet another reminder recently of the need to spend money to protect our public assets, writes Daily Commercial News columnist Korky Koroluk.
Waterline breaks make headlines, but infrastructure decline is the bigger story

Korky Koroluk

We got yet another reminder recently of the need to spend money to protect our public assets.

There were two rather impressive waterline breaks in two days in Ottawa. Both occurred on major traffic corridors — the second and biggest on the major trucking and commuter route between Eastern Ontario and West Quebec.

One of the breaks was in a pipe that was only about 30 years old. But the second was in a pipe that had been in place for 123 years.

There were howls of outrage from commuters, who found themselves either detouring, or, when work allowed it, inching slowly past the repairs under way.

The local news media treated the breaks as a local story, but didn’t make much of the national infrastructure deficit, and the need by governments at all levels to find the money to repair, replace and add to existing infrastructure.

That charge was led by Councillor Alex Cullen, who reminded local taxpayers as well as provincial and federal politicians that there is a pressing need to repair old sewer and water lines.

“This is “a sign of aging infrastructure,” Cullen said of the recent ruptures. “As long as the situation is not addressed, you can expect things like this to happen.”

Of the larger break in the old line, Dale Harley, spokesman for the National Capital Heavy Construction Association, said it was not unexpected. But it did, he said, send a message that the city “must take care of our assets, the same way we take care of our own assets.”

“If your roof leaks, you replace it,” he said, “rather than let the water that leaks in destroy the place.”

But that’s what’s going to happen, he said, if governments don’t start making the investments necessary to protect our public assets.

The association spearheaded the idea last fall of adding a special two-per cent levy to the municipal tax rate to be spent on infrastructure repair and replacement. The idea was accepted by council and became part of this year’s budget. It will make a total of $120 million available over three years.

On top of that, there is in the budget a nine-per-cent increase for sewer and water repair and replacement that shows up on the taxpayer’s water bill, not on his property tax.

So it sounds as though the money is set aside, and Ottawa’s infrastructure will be well looked after, right?

Well, says Harley, city staff has gone over the city’s long-term spending plan to identify where the priorities should be. And they have “identified a billion dollars’ worth of infrastructure renewal work that’s needed in the next eight years.”

And he added, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities has done a study that shows that $123 billion is needed simply to bring the country’s existing infrastructure up to standard, “and that’s where the federal and provincial governments need to step up to the plate.”

That has already begun to happen, he said, with both provincial and federal governments allocating money through major national and provincial infrastructure programs.

There is a bit of irony in all this. During the snowy winter just past, the city of Ottawa received a cheque from the province for $14.6 million for “extra” infrastructure spending.

So what did the city do? It used the money to pay for a shortfall in the snow-removal account. The province quietly and unofficially expressed its displeasure, since the city had been told the cash was for infrastructure.

The incident caused some to wonder how much the city can be trusted to spend money on what it was meant for. How willing will senior governments be in the future, they asked, to hand over cash without a lot of strings attached?

The city decision, Harley says, “is, I think, going to come back and bite the butts of some of those politicians who chose to reallocate that money instead of putting it to its intended use.”

Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to

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