Orange cones got you down? Repairs aren't sexy, and drivers are paying for it

Summer (read: construction season) is in full swing, and if you've noticed the minefield of detours and traffic cones seems especially bad in Canada's largest cities this year, there's a reason — some experts say it's a symptom of poor planning.

Infrastructure neglect has caught up with North American cities, and we're stuck with a maze of detours

Driving through Montreal these days means navigating a labyrinth of construction sites, but urban planners say better planning could have prevented some of the traffic snarls. (CBC)

Summer (read: construction season) is in full swing, and if you've noticed the minefield of detours and traffic cones seems especially bad in Canada's largest cities this year, there's a reason — some experts say it's a symptom of poor planning.

One third of municipal infrastructure in Canada is at risk of rapid deterioration, according to the 2016 findings released by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

All of that infrastructure desperately needs repairing, and that means the country's largest and oldest cities are a maze of construction sites while aging sewers, roads, bridges and overpasses are replaced.

We are experiencing now the cost of the inaction.-   Soliman   Abu-Samra , Civil engineering PhD  student at  Concordia  University

In Montreal, regular roadwork along with several major projects has made it virtually impossible to navigate the city without running into traffic snarls.

At a technical briefing looking ahead to this year, a Transports Quebec spokesperson didn't bother to sugarcoat it: "It's very easy, very simple — if you still continue using your car, especially solo cars, you will be stuck in traffic. There is no other option."

Toronto drivers, too, have their fair share of frustrations.

There are more than 200 projects underway in the city this summer, and one of them is the replacement of vintage water mains, which are more than a century old. 

A component of a Toronto vintage water main built in 1906. The 400-mm diameter section of cast iron pipe was taken from Queen Street East. (Toronto Water)

"We are experiencing now the cost of the inaction that has been happening," said Soliman Abu-Samra, a PhD student in civil engineering at Concordia University.

He said in the 1960s, governments prioritized building new infrastructure, but neglected to invest in long maintenance and repair.

And now cities are paying for it.

What was not visible to the naked eye — like rusting reinforcement in concrete — that was not talked about very much.- Raphaël  Fischler , Dean of the faculty of environmental design at the  Université  de  Montréal

"They forgot about the main structure and foundation of the city — which is its infrastructure — water, sewer networks, roads, electricity, gas networks. All of those are neglected," Abu-Samra said.

It was the culture at the time, according to Raphael Fischler, the dean of the faculty of environmental design at the University of Montreal.

"For cities of the same age, I think they all made the same mistakes. It was a general climate in North America of neglect of repair and maintenance," Fischler said, adding that New York and Boston are also facing the same issues.

"This is not something that can be explained by referring to the last year, the last two years. We have to think of the last century, in fact."

Shoppers cross at the busy intersection of Saint-Catherine and University in Montreal in 1963. (Archives de Montréal)

Montreal, for instance, went through a major growth spurt between the 1890s and the 1920s, and then again from the 1950s to the 1970s.

During that second, later phase, integral pieces of Montreal's road network, including the Turcot Interchange and the Champlain Bridge (Canada's busiest) were built. But they didn't weather the years quite as well as some of the city's older infrastructure.

"The investment curve from the 1960s — what happened is they invested in building the infrastructure, and then they they forgot that there is a life-cycle," Abu-Samra said.

And now all of it is due for a makeover.

Montreal has gone through two major growth spurts since this photo was taken in the 1890s. (Archives de Montréal)

Even though engineers and planners started to raise concerns over aging infrastructure back in the '90s, they say it was difficult to get the political establishment to prioritze spending on maintenance.

"It's not sexy to spend money on repairs, right?" Fischler said.

"When a politician says: 'OK, I'm cutting a ribbon on something new' — that carries a lot more weight for the elector than — 'Look, I spent so much money on annoying you with repairs.'"

He believes that's one of the factors at play behind why governments on all levels delayed investments in infrastructure maintenance.

"For a long time, what was underground or what was not visible to the naked eye — like rusting reinforcement in concrete — that was not talked about very much," he said.

It was out of sight and out of mind.

Seem familiar? The stop-and-go traffic might be a headache now, but the hope is that it will all be worth it 50 years down the road. (CBC)

In the Montreal area, one incident in particular might have jumpstarted a change: the deadly collapse of the De la Concorde overpass in 2006.

A 20-metre section of the Laval overpass fell onto Highway 19 below, killing five people and injuring six others.

A public inquiry found that while a "chain of causes" led to the collapse, no single person or group could be held responsible. 

But since the disaster, there's been a noticeable shift in infrastructure spending, especially in the Montreal area. 

Rescue workers survey the site of an overpass that collapsed onto Highway 19 in Laval, Que., on Sept. 30, 2006. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Fishler credits former Montreal mayor Denis Coderre for playing a key role in that change.

While North American cities might be learning from their mistakes, there's no going back in time.

"We have a lot of work. And we have to do it in a short amount of time because we neglected doing it for so long," Fischler said.

For now, drivers have no choice but to grin and bear it.

Fischler's advice to frustrated motorists is that all of this will be worth it some day.

"When you're stuck in your car, just think of the fact that this is something that absolutely needs to be done, so that the infrastructure network for the next 50 years will be better."

CBC asked why aging sewers, roads, bridges and overpasses are all being replaced at once in Canada's largest cities, and why politicians didn't plan better to avoid this traffic nightmare. 2:23

About the Author

Jaela Bernstien is a reporter based in Montreal. She's covered a wide range of news topics, ranging from criminal trials to ice age caves, and everything in between.


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