Infrastructure needs pose challenges

April 1, 2015   ·   0 Comments

THE IMPORTANCE OF GOOD infrastructure should be obvious to one and all, be it at the federal, provincial or municipal level and in the areas of transportation, health care or education.

However, getting and maintaining state-of-the-art infrastructure is invariably costly, and for this reason alone, careful attention should be given to how it should be acquired and maintained and its costs shared.

In Ontario, perhaps the best example of what governments ought not do is Highway 407, now by far North America’s most expensive toll road.

As most readers surely know, 407 is the long-needed alternative to the Toronto bypass section of Highway 401. It was planned as a freeway in the late 1950s, but construction did not begin until 1987, and the cash-strapped NDP government in the early 1990s decided it should be an electronic toll road. When the central portion opened in 1997 it had reasonable tolls, as low as two cents a kilometre in off-peak periods. But all that changed after the Conservative government of Premier Mike Harris sold it to a private consortium for what proved to be a tiny fraction of its value, and with sale terms that prohibited any government regulation of the tolls.

The result? An important element of the province’s transportation infrastructure has been left in foreign hands and the government is missing out on revenues that would go a long way toward ending its budget deficits.

Everywhere in the province, public transit, roads and streets are all vital infrastructure, but the current cost-sharing is enormously unfair.

We wonder how many of our readers realize that they as provincial taxpayers are footing $800 million of the soaring cost of a subway extension that will eventually see Toronto’s Spadina subway reach into Vaughan, and that Metrolinx, a provincial agency, is building Toronto’s new crosstown light rail transit line along Eglinton Avenue and will pay most of the cost of extending the Bloor-Danforth subway line into Scarborough – all this while Toronto’s property taxes are the province’s lowest relative to local property values. (Toronto homes worth $400,000 pay roughly half the property taxes of similarly priced homes in Orangeville.)

Then there is the matter of highways outside Toronto. For reasons we’ve never seen explained, all roads still in the King’s Highway system are owned by the Province, which is responsible for all new construction as well as maintenance. But all provincial highways  downloaded in the 1990s are now the responsibility of local taxpayers, even when most of the traffic they carry is from outside the local jurisdiction.

As we see it, the time has come for all trunk highways in Ontario to be regarded as shared infrastructure, with origin/destination surveys determining how much of a given roadway’s costs should be borne by the Province. (As one example, we suspect that a survey of Airport Road traffic in Dufferin would establish that, particularly on weekends, the vast majority of vehicles are going to and from the GTA.)

Then there is the matter of health care, where the major portion of infrastructure is in hospitals and chronic care facilities.

Again for reasons we’ve never understood, hospitals that receive virtually all their income from provincial taxpayers continue to be regarded as private non-profit entities operated by boards of governors, rather than as institutions owned by local governments or, as in the case of education, by boards of elected trustees.

One consequence locally is the absurd situation where Dufferin County is effectively reneging on a commitment by a previous council to foot $2 million of the $16 million in fundraising needed to equip an expansion and renovation of the county’s only remaining hospital, the Headwaters Health Care Centre.

As we see it, all our public hospitals should have elected boards with the same power now granted public health and conservation agencies, that to require local governments to contribute toward their financial needs.

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