By: Casey Vander Ploeg, Senior Policy Analyst, Canada West Foundation
Rural towns in the West are sleepy little affairs, and the small southern Alberta town in which I grew up is no different. There were, however, two occasions when the local hum-drum was broken, and believe it or not, both brouhahas involved infrastructure. The first was whether a new sportsplex arena should be built to replace the community rink that had burned to the ground in a spectacular cataclysm on Halloween in 1975. The second came about in the mid-1980s, and was all about whether the town’s gravel roads should be paved.
Most of the talk turned on whether the town could really afford the infrastructure. What was largely ignored was whether the town could afford to maintain those assets into the future. That’s the bigger and more important question—especially when it comes to pavement.
Road infrastructure is quite unlike other forms of municipal infrastructure in at least three ways. First, roadways have a relatively short life-span—about 25 years depending on usage. Because time is so unforgiving, ongoing maintenance is critical. If it is postponed, the need for rehabilitation and replacement arrives much quicker and with a much heftier price tag. In A Capital Question (Canada West Foundation 2003) we noted that if preventative maintenance costs $1 per lane-kilometre, then renewal or rehabilitation is $80 and reconstruction or replacement is $250.
Second, a lot of the infrastructure owned and operated by municipalities is invisible. It’s buried under the ground. Not roads, streets, bridges, and sidewalks. All of that is visible to the eye, and if you happen to look past it, the jarring sensation of that pothole is sure to inform your lower back.
Third, roads and related infrastructure comprise a huge chunk of the infrastructure liability. The capital budgets of the seven big western cities show that, on average, about 40% of all unfunded infrastructure over the next 10 years involves roadways. The figure is about 25% in Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary, but rises to 50% in Winnipeg, and a whopping 70% in Regina.
Building and repairing roads involves big money. But, new technologies being developed and tested in western Canada are working to relieve some of that “sticker shock.” One such example is PSI Technologies, a Saskatchewan-based company dedicated to building better roads through innovation and technology. The company started-up in 1998 with the goal of bringing science to road construction, a process that PSI President and CEO, Curtis Berthelot says hasn’t changed much since the 1940s.
PSI employs what is known as “mechanistic” or “scientific design and assessment” for road beds and pavements, and uses tools like ground-penetrating radar and modern physics to help determine what needs to be done and where it needs to be done. The company has also developed new ways to recycle waste products such as broken pavement and crushed concrete, and use them as lower cost but highly effective aggregates in the road building process.
These technologies were recently tested in Saskatoon through an initiative called the “Green Streets” project, which was funded with help from Communities of Tomorrow and the City. The goal of the pilot was to see whether various waste products could be processed into aggregate for road construction, if they could be handled and laid down with existing road-building equipment, and if they could meet the rigorous engineering specifications for new roadways.
In March 2010, Saskatoon City Council was handed a report on the project. It concluded that the technologies had been proven out. Significant savings were reported—savings that would allow the City to repair 30% more road surface at the same time that structural integrity was improved, less energy was used in construction, and less material ended up in the local landfill. The report predicted that Saskatoon could become the first municipality in Canada to find all of its road aggregate in the form of recycled materials.
It’s always good news when a policy challenge can be overcome in ways that are environmentally and economically sustainable, and that also results in lower cost and less expenditure of tax dollars. That type of good news also tends to spread quite quickly. The “Green Streets” project and the work of PSI is drawing a lot of attention from groups like the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), in their study “City of Saskatoon’s Green Streets Program”, and the Transportation Association of Canada (TAC), in their reports “Sustainability Case Review of Using Recycled Aggregate in Road Structure” and “Crushing and Processing Reclaimed Concrete for City of Saskatoon Rehabilitation of Road Structures”.
As it rightly should.