There has to be a better way to fund infrastructure

By Pauline Kerr


When a Roman leader put a plaque on a bridge that said, “This thing will be here forever,” he meant it.

Ancient Romans built bridges, roads, aqueducts and other infrastructure, to last.

Hundreds of Roman bridges are still standing, and some of them are even used for modern vehicle traffic. A good example is the Alcantara Bridge in Spain, built in AD 106. This massive structure spans 630 feet and stands 230 feet high, and it does indeed have a plaque on it as described.

Anyone who has been fortunate enough to toss a coin over their shoulder into Rome’s famous Trevi fountain may not have realized where the water in it comes from – the Acqua Vergine Antica aqueduct that supplied water to Roman public baths over two millennia ago.

A number of Roman roads, and portions thereof, constructed to link cities, facilitate commerce and allow legions to reach all parts of the empire quickly and easily, are still in use. The most famous of them is the Appian Way, built in 300 BC.

Fast forward to roads, water delivery systems and bridges in the new millennium.

One might think we would have learned a few things in 2,000 years about building infrastructure. However, the thought of one of our roads, bridges or water systems lasting more than a few years beyond the government that built it (with our tax money) is almost laughable.

Part of the problem is weather. Repeated cycles of freezing and thawing, along with regular applications of road salt, play havoc with infrastructure. Freezing temperatures were something the Romans rarely had to contend with.

Part of the reason is use. For most of their existence, Roman roads were trod on by sandalled human feet, and the occasional ox or horse drawing a cart. Beloved though they are by Hollywood, Roman chariots races rarely took place on those stone roads.

The main reason Roman infrastructure still stands is it was designed to do so, while obsolescence is designed into whatever we build.

When our government officials pose for the customary photo beside a new road or bridge, they anticipate changing needs, patterns of use and technology will doom the structure to demolition and replacement within the blink of an eye by Roman standards.

A modern road is supposed to last 15 to 20 years with proper maintenance. A bridge or water system? The limit is less than a century, even for an Appian Way-level showpiece costing millions of dollars – our tax dollars, although the government in power gets its name on the plaque, at least for a few years.

The problem our municipal governments face is finding the funds to replace deteriorating infrastructure built decades ago with provincial and federal money. Municipalities must compete for grants, and borrow huge sums even when they are successful. The list of projects that need to be done consistently surpasses funding available for doing the work. There are lists of what can be postponed for a bit, where buying some time with a repair job will probably work, and what needs to be done now to avoid lawsuits.

It is an unnecessarily expensive way of doing business – paying service charges on loans, and not filling in a small hole until it gets big enough to swallow a truck, at which point it costs a lot to fix.

The bottom line is municipalities, through property taxes, are asked to foot a growing chunk of the bill for ever-changing patterns of growth in a time of skyrocketing infrastructure costs.

Those Roman roads and bridges were built using private investment, slave labour and underpaid military personnel, none of which are valid options for a modern society. Ours are built with money taxed from property owners, a concept that is also becoming untenable.

Taxes on income use a graduated scale so the poor pay less; this is not the case for property taxes or user fees. There may be only one taxpayer, but all taxes are not equal. It is time to look at the way infrastructure is funded.

There has to be a better way to fund infrastructure was last modified: June 2nd, 2021 by Tammy Schneider

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