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Running ahead

Posted: March 10, 2017 at 8:55 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

Mayor commits to study of County Road 49. News comes as a suprise to his council colleagues

For starters, it’s County Road 49 not Highway 49. It hasn’t been Highway 49 since the province downloaded this 20-kilometre route onto this municipality, from the Skyway Bridge at Tyendinaga to Picton, in 1998. Mayor Robert Quaiff can be forgiven for frequently referring to this now-County responsibility by its former provincial name. Less understandable is his enthusiasm for rebuilding this very expensive concrete road—a massive infrastructure project that will burden the property taxpayers with a massive pile of new debt and still hundreds of miles of County roads in poorer condition than this road.

Many ratepayers still have a bad taste in their mouth from Picton’s last major infrastructure project. The new sewage treatment plant perched up on Macaulay Heights was originally expected to cost $18.9 million. The province and the federal government agreed to contribute a third of the projected cost to replace the existing capacity—$5.3 million each. The plant eventually cost more than $30 million with the County on the hook for more than $20 million— a debt that continues to weigh heavily upon waterworks consumers a decade after the fact.

Understandably, County residents are uneasy about embarking on another project with a price tag of tens of millions of dollars. Quaiff appealed to the province last year for money to rebuild County Road 49, but was rebuffed by ministry officials because they didn’t see the need as critical.

When it prepared its 2017 budget, council chose not to put any money aside for this road—though it earmarked $21.9 million as a potential capital project in 2018.

Some observers, including a few council members, were surprised to read in the Picton Gazette last week that Mayor Quaiff appeared to be committing the County to a technical review of County Road 49 while attending a roads conference in Toronto last week. Ministry of Transport officials had apparently offered to look at a technical review of the roadway if the County prepared one, said Quaiff.

No amount of money specified for such a review. Nevertheless, there will be a cost. Road engineers will be contracted, measurements taken and assessments compiled in a report. But no money has been set aside in the 2017 budget to fund such a review. So how is the mayor going to pay for it?

County roads chief Robert McAuley says that while there is no money available for such a review in this year’s budget, there remains a pot of money in reserve—$290,000, just under a percentage point of the tax levy—left over from the 2016 budget when the municipality thought it might get provincial support for the reconstruction of County Road 49.

Therefore the mayor has up to $290,000 to spend on a technical review of the roadway without triggering an impact on the 2017 budget. But Mayor Quaiff will still need council’s approval.

Some on council may not be prepared to rubber stamp the plan. Some councillors were surprised to hear that the topic of County Road 49 had risen again after last year’s failed attempt. Others are unsure about committing to such a large project. Still other councillors wished the mayor had briefed his colleagues before making this commitment public. They are still waiting for that briefing.

“I have not talked to Mayor Quaiff about this, so I am afraid I don’t know anything about it,” said Sophiasburgh Councillor Bill Roberts. “Typically after these meetings you file a report about what happened, who you met with and the nature of the conversations and any potential action items. But I haven’t seen anything from the last conference since the issue of County Road 49 has come up again.”

The Gazette article discusses a potential partnership with the cement plant north of Picton.

“I have not heard or seen anything about any of this,” said Roberts. “I see a number of $22 million, but I don’t recall any discussion about that in the 2017 budget. Perhaps these are just conversations or wish lists—but I am unfamiliar with them.”

County Road 49 is in poor condition. But many County roads are worse. In fact, according to County estimates, it has in excess of $600 million in roads needs. But is spends less than $10 million each year to repair and maintain them—it can’t afford any more. The municipality simply can’t tax or borrow enough to prevent County roads decaying faster than it can fix them.

Assuming County Road 49 could be rebuilt for the $22 million estimated, and further assuming the province changed its mind about this road and the federal government joined in for a third of the cost—it would still leave a $7 million bill for County taxpayers. By comparison, the County’s total capital budget for repairs to the entire road system this year is $6.8 million.

Mayor Quaiff is proposing committing a year’s entire road works capital and sinking it into a 20-kilometre stretch of roadway. Council is hoping to be briefed soon.