Climate crisis will make road and transit maintenance very expensive: Ontario watchdog | The Narwhal

As Doug Ford looks to break ground on new highways, Ontario’s financial watchdog is warning that extreme climate events will drive basic maintenance costs on transportation infrastructure drastically higher. 

In a new report out today, the Financial Accountability Office projects that extreme rainfall, heat and freeze-thaw cycles caused by the warming of the planet will increase the costs of maintaining roads, highways, bridges, sidewalks, transit and rail by an average of $1.5 billion per year in this decade. 

By 2030, Ontario’s provincial and municipal governments could be spending an average of $13.3 billion every year on infrastructure upkeep, let alone new projects. This is a 13 per cent increase in provincial and municipal transportation costs even if climate was stable — and that rise could be much more in a future of higher emissions, as much as 32 per cent.

The Financial Accountability Office’s role is to inform elected officials about present and future trends that could affect government spending. It doesn’t offer advice or instruction. Since 2019, the office has focused its calculations on one thing: the cost of climate change impacts on public infrastructure. 

The office’s analysis is unprecedented, the first in the world to study climate change impacts on infrastructure in granular financial detail. It has already put out six reports on the issue — on the potential impacts to essential services and buildings such as hospitals, schools, fire stations and more — with a final one coming towards the end of the year.

“The infrastructure that we’re building today will be around till 2080 or longer, so the infrastructure we design today needs to be able to withstand everything,” Peter Weltman, the financial accountability officer, told The Narwhal.

The takeaway of this report is that if you’re going to build 413, build it smart

Peter Weltman, Ontario Financial Accountability Officer

The provincial office is releasing its stunning numbers at a time when Canadians are already struggling to keep up with inflation on day-to-day expenses — driven by a variety of worldwide events, including global heating, economic slowdowns linked to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But the projected increases in costs are still modest when compared to a 2017 study published in Global Environmental Change, which found that the cost of repairing damage from heatwaves, floods and droughts on critical infrastructure in Europe could triple in the 2020s and multiply by 10 times by the end of the century.

The new Ontario report assesses the costs related to maintaining existing infrastructure as of 2020. Doug Ford’s proposed highway projects, like the Bradford Bypass or Highway 413, aren’t included. 

“The takeaway of this report is that if you’re going to build 413, build it smart,” Weltman said. “Build it while being mindful that it will become subjected to climate damage and build it to withstand that damage.” 

The latest report from Ontario’s Financial Accountability Office projects baseline costs for the upkeep of transportation infrastructure in the climate emergency. It finds that costs will increase dramatically if the government doesn’t implement an adaptation strategy. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

Ontario’s 444 cities, towns and other municipalities own 82 per cent of roads, bridges, transit lines and other transportation infrastructure, with the remainder owned by the province, says the report. Right now, Ontario’s entire transportation infrastructure is valued at $330 billion. If the climate remains stable, the province would spend an average of $12.9 billion every year to maintain it by 2030, the target year for climate commitments set by the Paris Agreement.

But the climate won’t remain stable — even if we were to drastically reduce emissions now, about 1.5 degrees of warming is almost certainly baked over the next two decades before any potential plateau or drop, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

The financial watchdog is projecting an increase in Ontario’s annual number of hot days as well as its annual rainfall intensity. In recent months and years, Ontario has borne the impacts of several severe climate events, such as this summer’s derecho storm and subsequent flooding and heat waves. These events have put trains out of service and closed down major arterials. 

The financial watchdog’s report focuses largely on extreme heat and extreme rainfall, as those weather events are tracked closely and directly impact public infrastructure.

The report finds extreme rainfall can overwhelm drainage functions on roadways, erode and break arterials and bridges, and destroy pavement. 

Extreme heat can soften asphalt and create cracks that turn into potholes. Heat can also cause stress on steel rail tracks that prevent trains from running. Freeze-thaw cycles, or quick fluctuations between freezing and non-freezing temperatures that alternately melt and solidify water, can also damage road surfaces.

The costs of repairing all this infrastructure could be lowered if the government spends now on preventative tactics. The report outlines what this adaptation would require. For roads, it means using temperature-resistant asphalt. Increased water levels will require roads to have larger drainpipes and for waterways to be reinforced with large rocks. Buildings will need deeper foundations, while railways need more supports to keep them stable. 

Climate crisis will make road and transit maintenance very expensive: Ontario watchdog | The Narwhal
The latest report from Ontario’s financial watchdog shows that effective emissions reduction and climate adaptation strategies can reduce the cost of maintaining transportation infrastructure. Graph: Ontario Financial Accountability Office

The report finds that emissions will drastically increase how much provincial and municipal governments spend on infrastructure repair — but the sooner we act, the more affordable it will be. Weltman was struck by “the sheer size of the dollars” in the latest cost analysis, but also by the return on investment the government could get with a strong infrastructure adaptation strategy. 

“We have examples of what happens when transportation fails,” Weltman told The Narwhal. “B.C. flooding last year, we saw what happened…that’s the big risk that makes a strong business case for adapting now.”

“Governments and everyone else should use [this report] as a starting point to figure out how to build smarter going forward in a climate crisis,” Weltman said. 

Notably, according to the report, the amount of emissions Ontario produces will have a significant impact on the money spent on public infrastructure upkeep. In a medium-emissions scenario — which sees Ontario reduce some greenhouse gas emissions — the financial watchdog finds an adaptation strategy will increase costs by 13 per cent, or $1.7 billion, every year. In a high-emissions scenario — which sees Ontario take little to no emissions-reduction measures — the same costs increase by 23 per cent, or $2.9 billion, every year. Those costs decrease by a few billion dollars if the government acts proactively sooner to adapt all infrastructure. 

 “It’s important that as we renovate and build new things that we keep the climate in mind and spend the money we need to spend to make sure everything is resilient going forward,” Weltman said. “If you’re going to build, build it out so it’s going to do the job you intend it to do between now and 2100.”

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