No one knows the true state of our highways

By Paul Moloney
Toronto Star

TORONTO - Nobody really knows the overall condition of southern Ontario's 11,000 kilometres of highways.

Information is spotty since Queen's Park turned over about half of the system to municipalities to look after, says Rob Bradford, of the Ontario Road Builders' Association.

``The requirement to assess the roads every year was dropped and they're just not doing it, with some exceptions. We don't know what the state of our infrastructure is,'' Bradford says.

``How do you do a report card now, with 600 municipalities that don't have the data you need? I think the last one we had was in 1994.''

The roads may be okay now, but in five years some will be ``crumbling,'' warns Michael Power, president of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario.

Where will upset motorists turn?

Well, the municipalities say it's the province's fault for giving them maintenance responsibilities without checking if they could afford it.

The province, for its part, is adamant that the municipalities have the fiscal muscle to do the job.

In all, about 5,175 kilometres of provincial highway in southern Ontario were turned over to municipalities in 1997 and 1998. They tend to be in built-up areas with heavy traffic and the greatest need of upgrading.

While their condition is a question mark, more is known about the 5,700 kilometres still in the province's hands.

A report last year by the provincial auditor said 44 per cent were in good shape. That's down sharply from 1979, when 60 per cent of the highways were rated good.

Bradford believes many centres have decided they don't have the will to finance repairs.

``They're saying (to the province), you've got to give us some of the gas tax or special funding or we can't keep our roads up. But the province has made it very clear and the minister has made it very clear to us that they believe it was a fair deal.''

`Quite bluntly, some of these roads will be crumbling.'

-- Michael Power
Association of Municipalities of Ontario

Still, some municipalities are playing a game of chicken, gambling that if they let the roads deteriorate the province will have no choice but to step back in, he says.

``Roads don't sell to the electorate. Arenas do, community centres do. When you've got choices to make, roads fall to the bottom of the list,'' Bradford says.

That doesn't change the fact that neglect today leads to even more expensive repair bills later, he says.

``It's a very short-sighted game going on.''

But it's a potentially effective form of protest, says Liberal transportation critic Michael Gravelle, who's heading a province-wide fact-finding tour of Liberal MPPs.

``That, in fact, may be the only way they're going to actually get this government to listen to them,'' says Gravelle (Thunder Bay-Superior North).

Power isn't optimistic about the system in five years' time.

``Quite bluntly, some of these roads will be crumbling,'' he says, which will slow down the movement of goods.

``Those just-in-time deliveries aren't all just off the 401 or 407 or 403, they're also off old Highway 2 and Highway 7 and the others. Those are now municipal roads and there's not the revenue to maintain or upgrade them.''

With so many players responsible for road upkeep, it's becoming increasingly difficult to hold anyone accountable.

``It's a real loss of accountability,'' says Gravelle. ``They (province) are basically washing their hands and saying, `Gee, it's not our problem.' ''

David Bradley, of the Ontario Trucking Association, says officials in the U.S. - where hundreds of billions are being devoted to roads - shake their heads when he tells them about the Canadian situation.

``I characterize it as the NHL small-market team mentality, that we can't afford to play in the big leagues. In Canada, we can't afford not to because roads are our lifeline,'' Bradley says.