Average age of highways and roads down, age of bridges up: StatsCan

The average age of Canada's public infrastructure has fallen steadily over the past seven years thanks to large investments in the highways and roads of Quebec and Ontario, according to a Statistics Canada report.

The average age of Canada's public infrastructure has fallen steadily over the past seven years thanks to large investments in the highways and roads of Quebec and Ontario, according to a Statistics Canada report.

Trucks cross the Confederation Bridge between Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick in 2007. The average age of bridges and overpasses in Canada has increased in the past seven years, Statistics Canada says. ((Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press))

But the average age of bridges and overpasses as well as sanitary and storm sewers increased, the report found.

The report, which examines highways and roads, bridges and overpasses, water supply systems, wastewater treatment facilities and sanitary and storm sewers, found that in 2007, the average age of Canada's public infrastructure reached 16.3 years.

That was down from its peak of 17.5 years in 2000. The gross value of these assets amounted to $286.2 billion in 2007, 5.3 per cent more than in 2001.

But the study cautions that the reduction in the average age doesn't necessarily imply that each asset is newer or in better condition.

B.C., Alta. and Ont. invest in water infrastructure

While the average age of highways and roads, the largest component of public assets, decreased to 14.9 years, the age of bridges and overpasses rose by 3.2 years over a 22-year period, from 21.3 years in 1985 to 24.5 years in 2007.

Water supply systems, including pumping and filtration stations, had the newest infrastructure in 2007, with the average age falling from 16.9 years in 2001 to an all-time low of 14.8 years in 2007. This was on account of large investments, especially in British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta.

Although the number of sanitary and storm sewers increased by one per cent a year on average since 2001; their average age reached a record high of 17.9 years in 2007.

The average life span for the five public assets is:

  • Highways and roads — 28.2 years.
  • Bridges and overpasses — 43.3 years.
  • Water supply systems — 36.8 years.
  • Wastewater treatment facilities — 28.2 years. 
  • Sanitary and storm sewers — 33.6 years.

Ontario had the newest public infrastructure system in the country in 2007, followed closely by Prince Edward Island and Alberta, the report found. Nova Scotia had the oldest, followed by Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

The report found that years of strong investment in Ontario's road network after 1994 lowered the average age from 16.8 to 13.9 years.

In Quebec, since 2001, investment in roads has been higher than at any time since the mid‑1970s and has lowered the average age from a peak of 18.6 in the 1990s to 15.2 years in 2007.

Among the study's other findings:

  • Since 2001, the average age of roads has dropped in all provinces except Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador. 
  • Manitoba had the nation's oldest road network in 2007, even though the average age has gone from 18.1 years to 17.1 years since 2001.
  • The average age of wastewater treatment facilities was oldest in P.E.I., followed by Quebec.
  • The average age of sanitary and storm sewers was oldest in Newfoundland and Labrador (20.9 years).

Numbers don't reflect deterioration, expert says

But Saeed Mirza, a professor in the civil engineering department at McGill University, said the report does not reveal the full picture of Canada's infrastructure problems.

"It does not bring into the equation the deterioration that has set in our older infrastructure. Our estimate is 28 per cent of our infrastructure is more than 80 years old and needs more attention," he told CBC News

"We need to bring in these deterioration aspects to get a clearer picture. This way it appears that everything is satisfactory."

Mirza said a recent survey conducted for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities revealed that 41 per cent of public assets are less than 40 years old, 31 per cent are between 40 and 80 years old and 28 per cent are over 80 years old.

That study also concluded that the three levels of government must spend $123 billion to fix infrastructure to avoid collapse.