The Infrastructure Report Card
Long-awaited results say less about the state of Canada’s public works assets and more about the poor state of municipal asset management—something the feds may address in a new long-term plan.
The report, written by Guy Félio with support from the four funding organizations, assesses the condition of four primary municipal infrastructure asset categories: drinking water systems, wastewater and stormwater networks, and roads. Data was gathered through a voluntary survey of Canadian municipalities, in which they were asked to assess the condition of their infrastructure in 2009–2010.
After a big initial push to get communities to submit data, 346 municipalities registered to participate. In the end, only 123 contributed. While some municipalities left sections blank because they don’t own or operate a particular asset type, others may have been discounted because the data they provided was incomplete or couldn’t be verified. According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), quite a few municipalities replied to the survey without the level of detail required to extrapolate the state of certain assets. “We asked pretty technical questions,” says a rep for FCM. Future report surveys may include more streamlined, less technical questions with fewer fields to avoid a repeat of this issue. The larger issue, however—whether municipalities should have that technical data on file for all assets—is something at which the report only hints. It’s also something that is being discussed in the consultations leading up to the federal government’s next long-term infrastructure plan (LTIP).
Despite these information gaps, the report authors feel these results manage to provide a good snapshot of how a cross-section of the country is faring. The verdict? Adequately.
The immediate findings show that municipal drinking water and wastewater systems ranked “Good: Adequate for now,” and stormwater systems ranked “Very good: Fit for the future.” Roads received an overall grade of “Fair: requires attention.”
Report Card Results by Sector
2012 Canadian Infrastructure Report Card
While the overall scores are “good,” report authors warn that this is not cause for complacency.
For one thing, the report refers to the way all governments approach managing these assets in the future as “troubling.” The overall ratings for the four asset categories show a significant average of 30 per cent of municipal infrastructure falling between “fair” and “very poor.” Nationally, the replacement cost of these assets alone is estimated at $171.8 billion.
The report authors are careful to point out that if investment, operations, and maintenance stays as is, most infrastructure, even if in good or very-good condition now, will require increasingly larger investments as it ages.
Ric Robertshaw, director of wastewater for the Region of Peel, says positive results can be misleading. Stormwater infrastructure, for instance, rated very well, but that’s likely because these assets are relatively new. Drinking water systems, on the other hand, are in genuinely good shape, which Robertshaw says is a credit to all levels of government funding and a commitment to a “duty of care” approach by elected representatives and public works professionals.
Other good results are due to past and ongoing investment. “We can’t become complacent,” says Robertshaw. “Now is not the time to sit back. To keep [the results] good, we need to keep funding levels—at a minimum—where they are. In some cases, [they need to be] at an enhanced level. By doing that, we have the opportunity to avoid a crisis scenario coming to fruition.”
Easier said than done. In order to sell upfront and ongoing investment in assets that are in “fair” or “good” condition, city managers need to have data on hand.
Canadian Society for Civil Engineering’s (CSCE’s) Nick Larson attended a roundtable this summer as part of the federal government’s consultation process leading up to the new LTIP, during which asset management (AM) was discussed at length. Larson says, “Most sustainable concepts sounds good, [but] in order to demonstrate their environmental and social benefits, you need to have the process in place to provide [decision-makers] with the justification for choosing one approach over another.”
What the report card found is that many municipalities lack the internal capacity to assess the state of their infrastructure accurately on their own.
Poor asset management
The municipal reporting process on which the report card relies evaluates the state of four different types of infrastructure assets. But, in the process, ends up also assessing the state of Canada’s AM practices. It turns out that the system with the worst result on this report is neither roads nor water—it’s asset management (AM).
While it is clear that municipalities monitor the quality of their drinking water through rigorous testing and monitoring, evaluating the physical condition of their treatment plants and buried distribution networks remains a significant, on-the-ground challenge for many municipalities to undertake on their own. For example, an average of 30 per cent of respondents had limited data about their water treatment plants, reservoirs, or pumping stations. A large percentage of municipalities reported having no data on the condition of their buried infrastructure: 41.3 per cent for distribution pipes and 48.2 per cent for transmission pipes.
For roads, many respondents don’t have regular condition assessment programs—41.2 per cent reported that they don’t have an inspection program for their highways, and the percentage dropped to between 20 and 25 per cent for arterials, collectors and local roads. Only 94 of the 139 road survey respondents provided capacity data for roads, while only 60 per cent of these municipalities have a capacity/demand assessment process.
Finite financial resources, staff, and time contribute to the lack of thorough, real-time evaluation processes for the state and performance of physical infrastructure, say the report authors.
“All municipalities should have some form of AM plan. But the smaller municipalities may not have all the expertise in house—in fact, many of the larger municipalities don’t have it,” says Robertshaw. “AM is the key to building a sustainable long-term infrastructure funding program.”
Whether the federal government agrees with that statement remains to be seen.
The federal long-term infrastructure plan
While the current Building Canada plan expires in 2014, the federal government has indicated some element in the LTIP will address AM—it may be a series of best practices, or it could go as far as making a solid AM plan a condition of municipal infrastructure funding.
According to the Infrastructure Report Card’s preamble, the organizations behind the report believe that “creating reliable tools to take objective measurements of the condition of public infrastructure is a necessary precursor to developing an agreed-upon long-term national plan to fix and maintain it. In recent months, stakeholders at several LTIP consultative roundtables debated whether or not this holds a long-term role for the feds.
As part of the three-phase plan to develop the LTIP, representatives from national organizations such as FCM, Canadian Construction Association (CCA), and Engineers Canada (EC) met with the provinces, territories, municipalities, industry organizations, and private sector representatives to gather feedback about priorities and needs. (Details on these roundtables can be found at infrastructure.gc.ca/plan/plan-eng.html.)
As part of phase two of the LTIP’s development process, CSCE was asked to look at what tools and methodologies jurisdictions are using to decide which assets will be rehabilitated or replaced. They will present the best practices, which will be made available to municipalities. That’s as far as the process has gone so far. Larson says, “As far as attaching funding to [AM], FCM is not in favour of that—they want no strings attached [to funding].”
If that’s been the formal feedback, it’s difficult to tell based on the information the feds have been willing to provide. A spokesperson for Infrastructure Canada says, “So far, we have heard that the next plan should be long-term, stable, and flexible, designed to accommodate varied needs across the country, and that predictability is required to allow our partners to plan over the long term.”
The feds have committed to a national roundtable as part of phase three of the plan’s development that will be attended by at least one federal minister.
The Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada (ACEC), for its part, has rereleased its 2011 position paper entitled The Benefits of Infrastructure Investment. ACEC’s president, John Gamble, says the group is looking forward to participating in the national roundtable in the fall. “Our industry members have direct knowledge and expertise on the benefits of infrastructure investment and it is essential that our recommendations be considered in the drafting of a new plan for Canada,” he says.
According to Infrastructure Canada, “Working together with partners and stakeholders is crucial to the success of developing a new plan.” Will that plan look any different from the current one? Will the report card’s finding effect these decisions? Only time will tell.
The report card was produced with support from the Canadian Construction Association, Canadian Public Works Association, Canadian Society for Civil Engineering, and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. A summary of the results with commentary from the four funding organisations was distributed exclusively with the September/October issue of ReNew Canada.