Montreal’s infrastructure nearing disaster proportions

Two cranes are used to pull a backhoe out of a sinkhole in downtown Montreal on Tuesday. (CBC)

Over the past few months, the City of Montreal has suffered a handful of infrastructure-related setbacks, from a backhoe being consumed by a sudden and massive sinkhole to large swaths of the city being placed on a boil water advisory after issues at a treatment plant.

They are just the latest in a series of troubling near-disasters that underline the city's ongoing infrastructure deficit.

You don’t have to go too far back into the municipality’s history to find a score more examples. From crumbling highways to creaking, dusty water pipes; from concrete slabs falling from Montreal's Olympic Stadium, to concrete slabs falling from Montreal’s Viger tunnel.

The Montreal Gazette launched an ongoing debate in May after publishing a letter from a visitor who outlined the city's "Third World conditions”.

"I am shocked at the pollution, rubbish bags everywhere and Third World-class roads, full of potholes, and dangerous sidewalks. It is like coming to a Third World country rather than a place to be proud of," Australian Judy Diamond wrote.

Some locals took umbrage with the statement, but few argued against the sorry state of local roads and sidewalks. Treacherous was a word used more than once.

[ Related: Montreal crews lift backhoe from gaping sinkhole ]

The problem was underlined, emphasized and restated in a report from the city's auditor general earlier this year. Jacques Bergeron called for the city to address its massive infrastructure spending deficit in a 550-page report that suggested the city was shorting itself on road and sidewalk construction by $100 million annually.

Dr. Saeed Mriza, an engineering and infrastructure expert at McGill University, said the recent problems are not surprising, but rather the latest chapter in a “sad saga” of shortsightedness.

“If we was our economy to move, we have got to spend on our infrastructure,” Mirza told Yahoo! Canada News. “I have been warning them off and on for the past 20 years and nobody listened until the collapse of the De la Concorde overpass (in 2011).

“When you look at these sinkholes happening, these are disasters waiting to happen. There will be more disasters happening in Montreal if we don’t monitor our infrastructure.”

Montreal is not alone in this, although as one of Canada's older cities it could be an outlier. In Toronto, potholes and cracked sidewalks reign supreme, and one can't drive under the Gardiner Expressway without bracing against the possibility that slabs of concrete may rain down from above.

Indeed, nearly every municipality across the country faces an infrastructure deficit of one kind or another.

A 2007 report on the coming collapse of Canada's municipal infrastructure suggested the deficit caused by untreated, deteriorating projects had reached $123 billion.

The report reads:

Across Canada, municipal infrastructure has reached the breaking point. Most was built between the 1950s and 1970s, and much of it is due for replacement. We can see the consequences in every community: potholes and crumbling bridges, water-treatment and transit systems that cannot keep up with demand, traffic gridlock, poor air quality and a lack of affordable housing.

Mirza now says that leaving that $123 billion deficit unaddressed for another six years, plus new needs that have arisen, have added another $115 billion to the cost of maintaining municipal infrastructure.

Add on top of that provincial and federal infrastructure maintenance costs and the number reaches as high as $500 billion. Once you include about $400 billion to address the country’s crumbling energy infrastructure, from pipelines to hydro plants, Mirza says the country is flirting with a trillion-dollar infrastructure deficit.

“The total infrastructure needs of Canada are about $1 trillion. It is a threatening concept and our governments don’t pay enough attention to it,” Mirza said.

[ More Brew: The dubious silver lining beneath the dark cloud of disaster ]

To the government's credit, some more assistance is coming. The new budget includes about $53 billion in support for local infrastructure projects over the next decade. That roughly breaks down to $5.3 billion in funding per year which, if Mirza's trillion-dollar-deficit approximation is accurate, frankly won't go very far.

Although there is an argument that investment over the past six or seven years has decreased the average age of Canada's core public infrastructure, that doesn't mean those old projects are getting any younger.

“With deteriorating infrastructure, our productivity would go down, we would not be able to attract capital, our economy will suffer and subsequently our quality of life will suffer,” he said.

The Canadian municipal infrastructure report compiled in 2007 suggested the country’s aging municipal infrastructure was “on the brink of failure.”

Every day, more improvements and repairs begin and are completed across the country. Roadways are widened, marinas are rebuilt and water facilities are improved. But every day, the country falls further behind. Every day that brink gets closer.

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