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Niagara Falls
Tuesday, May 28, 2024
Arch-i-text: How the cost of upgrading our roads caught up to us
The Niagara Falls Park & River Railway ran an electric train in late 19th and early 20th century between Chippewa and Queenston, later ran by International Railway Company. It ceased its service to Queenston in 1932. @timetraveltrevor Instagram

While the provincial government shovels money into “sexy” capital infrastructure projects — like the unnecessary and largely unwanted roundabout in St. Davids, which is projected to cost somewhere between $3.9 million and $12 million — the lowest tier governments are largely abandoned to struggle with funding the maintenance and updating of an aging automotive transportation infrastructure.

For the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, according to a report paid for by taxpayers and produced by 4 Roads Management Services, the cost to replace the town’s road system will equal $8.5 million annually — an amount that our collective pocketbooks will need to fund over the next 50 years.

This, of course, is predicated on the assumption that we will continue to double down on the current model of depending on the automobile as our primary method of transportation and maintenance of the asphalt & concrete infrastructure upon which it depends.

Should we follow this path, don’t be surprised if, next year and every year thereafter into the foreseeable future, your property tax bill goes up substantially.

Now, allow me to say that this is not solely due to financial mismanagement by past and current local councils, although they do bear some of the responsibility.

In reality, all levels of government in this country over the last 100 years have, with singular focus, pushed us down the automotive rabbit hole for at least five decades now, financing this with deficit spending at the provincial and federal levels.

Here’s a “fun” — but sad — fact: on a per capita basis, Canada spends more than twice as much as the United States on this type of infrastructure.

According to a research paper the University of Calgary published in 2023, entitled “Canadian Competitiveness for Infrastructure Investment,” our infrastructure deficit — the investment required to expand, upgrade, or rehabilitate the municipal infrastructure system that has been deferred because it exceeds the municipality’s current funding capacity — now stands at approximately $600 billion.

There is very little comfort in the fact that the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake is far from alone in dealing with this financial crisis, as municipalities across this country face an identical challenge.

But, what decisions led us to the edge of the precipice at which we we currently stand?

The full answer to that question is far too complex for the space available in this column, but there are a couple that which we can explore.

So, let’s begin by going back to the first quarter of the 20th century and looking at the power driven transportation options available to those who lived and worked in the geographical area now known as Niagara-on-the-Lake.

On Old Town’s King Street, two sets of rails ran side-by-side up the road.

On one set, the Michigan Central’s train from Buffalo would rumble down the rails belching steam and coal smoke to the station and turntable located near the docks just before noon and then make the return journey out of town around 2 p.m.

The other set of rails was there for the use of the Niagara, St. Catharines & Toronto Railway, which ran an electric train — both passenger and freight streetcars — service from its Old Town station at King and Market streets (today’s Balzac’s) to the Geneva Square terminal in St. Catharines (Welland & Geneva streets).

Along the way, there were 10 official passenger stations where people and freight (local farm produce destined for non-local buyers) could embark, exit or be loaded.

From the St. Catharines terminal, electric train cars travelled out to service the downtown area, while other lines serviced other locations in the surrounding area.

The Low Line service ran out to Merritton and Thorold, the High Line on the Welland Division travelled all the way down to Port Colbourne, the Port Dalhousie Division crossed Twelve Mile Creek Road and Martindale Pond, then followed Lakeshore into the village, and finally, the Grantham Division ran north to cross the old Welland Canal and then northwest to terminate in Port Dalhousie East.

A similar electric train system, initially operated by Niagara Falls Park & River Railway and later by International Railway Company, plied a double set of rails between Chippewa and Queenston, with passenger traffic peaking in 1923 at 1,951,000.

Between these two companies and several others, the Niagara peninsula could be easily navigated by rail during this period.

So, what happened?

A number of factors including questionable management, the Great Depression and the advent of the automotive imperative, with a resultant decrease in ridership, which lead to the end of the electric rail transit systems in Niagara.

In 1931, the Niagara, St. Catharines & Toronto Railway abandoned its service into Old Town and the following year, the International Railway Company ceased its service into Queenston, leaving automotive transportation as the only alternative for the people living in areas of what would become NOTL during the rest of the 20th century.

This leads us to the roads, which were almost exclusively gravel or hard-pack.

In the 1920s, Queen Street became the first paved road in NOTL but few others were.

If you turned the corner at Centre and Mississauga streets in 1956, you’d not notice any difference — both were gravel.

The paving of town roads largely took place in the second half of the 20th century.

Now, whether or not that was a wise decision is debatable.

According to industry sources, the cost of constructing a municipal gravel road is approximately one-tenth (or less) that of a paved road.

In the 1960s, the general belief was that paved roads would cost much less to maintain and therefore it made sense to swallow the high upfront cost because that investment would be paid back over time.

Unfortunately, that has not proven to be the case.

While the first few years after construction a paved road shows a substantially lower maintenance cost versus gravel, over time, that trend reverses itself.

In the most conservative paper I am aware of, titled “Gravel Roads Maintenance and Design Manual” and published by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2000, the cost of paved road maintenance is actually over 25 per cent higher than maintaining a gravel road.

A relatively simple repaving of existing roads currently runs at a thumbnail estimate of $1 million per mile.

However, that cost number can escalate significantly if the deeper ditches and higher volume storm water management systems required by the impermeable roads — plus other considerations — do not conform to today’s requirements and must be brought up to current standards.

Simply read, that $1 million may double in order to conform to today’s best practices. 

Here at home, our existent paved roads have reached (and passed) their expected life span and the bill is coming in at $8.5 million per year over the next 50 years (and, we must understand, that cost estimate is in 2022 dollars).

We have been living beyond our means for decades — and since government bankruptcy isn’t a practical option — a fundamental rethink is critical.

Perhaps there should be some consideration given to returning a certain percentage of our roads to gravel.

I grew up with gravel roads and my first house in King Township fronted on a gravel road — quite frankly, it’s not all that bad.

And, a real public transit option with a zipcar (or similar) interface would be invaluable.

If the federal and provincial governments are so keen on funding capital infrastructure projects, there’s one that might actually make sense.

Brian Marshall is a NOTL realtor, author and expert consultant on architectural design, restoration and heritage.

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