The city is postponing or cancelling numerous road, water and sewer projects in its 2018 budget, slashing its capital program by $160 million in the coming year compared with what it expected to spend.
The details are in a memo the city treasury sent to councillors late Tuesday, comparing the forecast its accountants prepared for 2018 when they made up last year’s budget with what the budget actually contains. It’s a one-page explanation, with an 18-page spreadsheet attached, itemizing hundreds of construction and major repair projects. The bottom line is that the city expected to spend $889 million on capital projects in 2018 but now it’ll only be $729 million.
Some of the changes are just because the city’s realized it can do things more cheaply than it thought. Pleasant surprises do happen.
Some of it is paper savings: $30 million of the $160 million is accounted for by shuffling the spending schedule for the next phase of light rail. The money will still be spent, just not yet.
Even if we take out the light-rail money, the city’s cutting its capital-spending forecast by $140 million over the next three years, which is worrying in a city where we persistently pay too little to keep up our stuff.
The memo lays out just where Mayor Jim Watson found the money for the raft of small but very visible fix-up jobs he promised when he presented his draft budget to city councillors a couple of weeks ago.
“Residents understand that the last seven years have seen us focus more heavily on transit infrastructure — which required a massive catch-up effort,” the mayor said then. “Today, residents are asking us to shift some of that focus to our social infrastructure and to our other built infrastructure needs. What we are hearing — at public meetings or in informal conversations — is the need to continue to do more about the state of our roads, infrastructure, buildings and parks.”
He went on to talk about filling hundreds of thousands of potholes, investments in sidewalks and bike routes, and the 70 kilometres of rural roads that are in for improvements.
Yet the budget increases capital spending on transit from the previously forecast $84 million to $118 million next year. New buses and computer systems account for much of the increase.
The budget cuts all other transportation spending from $265 million to $218 million.
Now, transit and transportation (roads, bikeways, and sidewalks) are separate categories in the city budget, but there’s a whole lot of transit spending in the transportation budget. The “transit” budget essentially covers the costs of OC Transpo itself; the roads and bridges OC Transpo buses drive on are “transportation”, even if they’re dedicated busways. So stay with me while we disentangle it as best we can.
One of the immediate cuts to the “transportation” budget is $25 million for dedicated bus lanes along Baseline Road, a project that’s getting pushed into 2020. Some fixes to the Prince of Wales Bridge across the Ottawa River are postponed beyond the planning horizon, too. Totally in keeping with Watson’s speech.
But there are mighty big cuts to road spending. Those include renovations to the east end of Carling Avenue, Greenbank Road in Barrhaven and Scott Street between Lanark and Holland. They add up to well over $100 million and they’re just gone.
Some of that money gets sprinkled across other smaller projects. Lots of little rural bridges, for instance. The budget for resurfacing of crumbly roads is getting a $5-million boost, from $31 million to $36 million, and the $2-million-and-change budget for sidewalk and pathway renewal is getting an extra $175,000.
The upshot is that the city is cutting a few large construction projects this year and using only some of the savings for a bunch of small ones. The 2018 capital budget for transportation is down $47 million from what the city expected it to be this time last year. Overall transportation spending is getting $124-million cut over the next three years.
Then there’s the budget for water and sewers. In September, city council approved a financial plan that said we would to spend an average of $310 million a year on water mains and sewer lines to keep the ones we have in good repair and lay new ones to accommodate development.
The city takes stock like this every five years. Between 2012 and 2017, apparently, we spent about $220 million a year on pipes, more than we’d expected to, and it wasn’t enough. We have a backlog of repairs we need to get to if we don’t want water mains blowing up under major roads or pipes dribbling poop into the ground. In September, city councillors approved the plan to try to catch up.
That plan was going to get a slow start. The city would spend $206 million in the first year, knowing that wasn’t enough but planning to white-knuckle it through. For 10 years, funding would increase until we got where we needed to be.
What’s happening in 2018? We’re spending $201 million.
Capital spending on library renovations is down (so long, upgrades to the Orléans, Centennial and North Gower branches), but on parks-and-recreation buildings it’s up. There’s an extra $3.5 million for physical improvements to the city’s nursing homes, a boost from the $1 million that’s the standard annual allocation. Plans for a big park in Riverside South, previously unfunded, are getting $7.8 million over two years.
The cuts aside, there’s a clear shift from invisible things like underground pipes to highly visible ones like potholes and fieldhouses. Because hey, 2018’s an election year. Expect to see your tax dollars working for you.