Special Report: Cycling

City to Spend Tens of Millions on Road Reconstruction

Before freaking out about the next cycling investment, we need to put our our very modest investments in walking and cycling infrastructure into perspective.

By Ryan McGreal
Published April 23, 2014

Yesterday, the City of Hamilton issued a news release capitalizing on the CAA's Worst Roads campaign to note that the City's Public Works Department maintains its own list of municipal infrastructure that is due for reconstruction.

The release includes of a list of priority road work projects and their associated costs. For each project, I've measured the distance and calculated the reconstruction cost per kilometre:

Hamilton Priority Road Reconstruction Costs
Street From To Distance (km) Cost Cost/km
Centennial Parkway King Arrowsmith 2.40 $3,500,000 $1,458,333
West 5th Stone Church Linc 0.85 $2,900,000 $3,411,765
West 5th Mohawk College (south entrance) Gateview 0.85 $3,300,000 $3,882,353
Rymal Road Fletcher Dartnall 2.40 $11,000,000 $4,583,333
Burlington St/Industrial Dr Birch QEW 5.00 $14,570,000 $2,914,000
Parkdale Avenue Barton Burlington 1.40 $3,400,000 $2,428,571
Garth Street Stone Church Rymal 1.00 $4,500,000 $4,500,000
King Street Battlefield Applewood 1.00 $4,350,000 $4,350,000
Mountain Brow Blvd Mohawk Rd Oakcrest Dr 2.20 $4,900,000 $2,227,273
Overall 17.10 $52,420,000 $3,065,497

These nine segments of road reconstruction and water main work span 17.1 kilometres at a total cost of $52.4 million, with an average cost of $3 million per kilometre to complete.

Let us wait for the city's self-appointed fiscal watchdogs to go over these projects with a fine-toothed comb: scrutinizing every dollar, making us-vs-them pronouncements about the locations, agonizing over ongoing maintenance obligations, suggesting ways to save money - like closing lanes during the winter - and so on.

Don't hold your breath, however, because the people who were ¬°outraged! over the modest cost of the three-kilometre, two-way Cannon Street cycle track will be curiously blase about the vastly higher costs of maintaining our automobile network.

Road lanes used by automobiles need to be reconstructed every 25 years at a cost of around $750,000 per lane-kilometre. That's $30,000 per lane-kilometre per year over the lifespan of the road, and it's on top of around $6,000 per lane-kilometre per year for regular maintenance and snow clearing.

Using a two-lane street that runs three kilometres as an example, we're looking at $216,000 per year in lifecycle costs, every year for the 25-year life of the street for a grand total of $5.4 million - at the end of which we need to start over again.

Perspective

To be clear, I'm not suggesting we should stop maintaining our roads. I'm suggesting we need to put our very modest investments in walking and cycling infrastructure into perspective. Over 99% of public spending on roads goes into accommodating automobiles, yet we reserve the lion's share of scrutiny and hyperbole for the leftover slivers of investment in active transportation.

I'm also suggesting that we need to get better at making decisions on how best to design and maintain our roads based on net costs and benefits, rather than just phoning in the status quo.

Wear-and-tear on the road is a function of the number and mass of vehicles running on it, and everything we do to reduce wear-and-tear will extend the life of the street.

It takes around 1,000 bicycles on a lane to produce the same wear-and-tear as one subcompact car and 8,000 bicycles to produce the same wear-and-tear as one SUV. To produce the wear-and-tear of a single transport truck, you would need millions of bicycles.

It's a no-brainer that some of our excess lane capacity should be repurposed to encourage a lot more walking and cycling, especially in the lower city where automobile traffic volumes have been falling. Doing so will actually save the city money in lower lifecycle obligations, not to mention improved public health and increased economic vitality.

Of course, a few diehards will wade in and try to confuse the issue by claiming falsely that car drivers pay for roads or that making it safer and easier to walk and cycle will somehow not encourage more people to walk or cycle. However, the case is already clear for anyone willing to base a decision on the evidence rather than their own untested assumptions.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Several of his essays have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. Ryan also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on twitter.

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By Nicer (anonymous) | Posted April 23, 2014 at 09:21:18

Another nicer. Thank you Ryan, for that great analysis.

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By Yvonne (anonymous) | Posted April 23, 2014 at 09:22:09

What.. main west from Osler to Mac isn't on that list? It's been pothole and bump-ridden for years now. Terrible for cars, terrible for bikes.

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By rednic (registered) | Posted April 23, 2014 at 09:51:41

Looks like a great plan! Don't fix any inner city roads, making them impassable for trucks, hence the trucks take newly fixed Burlington to get out of the city. Cunning!

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted April 23, 2014 at 10:42:47 in reply to Comment 100572

Nobody is saying we shouldn't maintain our roads, it's that we need to keep in mind how much we're spending on cars when we're obsessing about how much we spend on other forms of transportation.

Also, that we should be looking at places we could save money by reducing this maintenance burden... not by abandoning maintenance altogether, but by identifying roads that are overbuilt and thus can be reduced in some way. The Burlington Street overpasses are a good example - bridges represent a terribly high maintenance expense and this city loves building them willy-nilly even when they're completely unnecessary. Sometimes I think there's some bridge-building contractor who has the ear of somebody important at City Hall, because Hamilton has never seen a gap it didn't want to spend millions building a bridge over (and further millions maintaining it). Many cases where a level crossing would be perfectly fine, we still build a bridge.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted April 23, 2014 at 10:50:15

Is there any way of determining what the Priority Road Reconstruction costs on a square meter basis, discounting water main work?

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By Keith (anonymous) | Posted April 23, 2014 at 11:56:10

To be fair, of those projects listed, the City's cycling website plans to include new cycling facilities along both West 5th projects, Garth, King and Burlington. From my understanding, those costs would be included in the rebuild costs (though I may be wrong on that)

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted April 23, 2014 at 15:33:04 in reply to Comment 100576

Sad that the easiest way to get cycling infrastructure is to slip it in the design of exponentially more expensive road projects.

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