It was Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer who sailed to victory in 2018 with a pledge to “fix the damn roads,” referring to the state of Michigan’s infrastructure. When she got into office she proposed to pay for the roads by raising Michigan’s gasoline tax to 45 cents a gallon—nearly tripling the tax and making it the highest state gas tax in the US. That proposal was deeply unpopular, with one poll finding it opposed by 75% of Michigan voters, including majorities of both Democrats and independents. That plan was shot down by the Michigan legislature and the infrastructure plan she eventually managed to get passed was watered down considerably. Such are the realities of politics.
Now the “fix the damn roads” mantra has hit Hamilton with Mayoralty candidate Keanin Loomis laying out a multi-point plan mostly based on a 2021 value for money audit on Hamilton roads conducted by the city’s auditor general Charles Brown and his team. (As a side note the current Red Hill Inquiry documents show how Brown’s department was stonewalled when it first launched the audit in 2019).
But the audit was eventually completed in 2021 and one of its key recommendations is to engage in preventative maintenance earlier in the life cycle of a road to avoid more costly repairs later. The report notes there are roads in Europe that were paved in the 1930s or 1940s which have never been reconstructed or rehabilitated. The report also recommends a crackdown on contractors who do not meet standards, and overall better monitoring of road conditions. All of these recommendations are valuable but none of them will get at the backlog in road repairs, which the auditor estimates would take 240 years at the current rate of spending—or in Hamilton’s case, underspending.
When it comes to finding the funds to catch up on road repairs Mr. Loomis suggests “prioritizing Hamilton infrastructure in discussions with provincial and federal partners.” Setting aside the fact that there probably hasn’t been a Hamilton mayor in the last century who hasn’t done exactly that; there is the question of why would Hamilton get special treatment in this regard? Mr. Loomis was part of a successful lobby to get $3.4 billion for Hamilton’s LRT. Having provided that unprecedented allocation of infrastructure resources, it would be interesting to see the argument that the two senior governments should now embark on a massive road rehabilitation scheme in Hamilton. Doug Ford in particular, might be skeptical, given that he is on the hook for any cost overruns incurred by the LRT; and given the state of infrastructure cost escalations across Canada-post-COVID, it is almost inevitable that Hamilton’s project will cost much more than what is budgeted. There is a notional allocation of funding to municipalities from senior governments, and Hamilton is seen to have done very well in that regard.