Investing in the Future

Trends and Shifts in Civil Infrastructure

Infrastructure – we seemingly only ever hear about it when it’s “crumbling” or when our governments decide to invest in it. We don’t often consider how important public works and infrastructure are to our everyday lives: all the roadways and highways that get us to and from work every day; the water distribution systems that keep our cities and towns supplied with water; and the electric grids that keep the lights on.
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In Canada, the federal government recognizes the need for spending on infrastructure. The Liberal government is in the beginning stages of their $180 billion infrastructure plan; adopted in the federal budget in 2016, the plan has been expanded a few times to its current monetary value of roughly $180 billion. This program, a joint venture between 14 federal agencies including Transport Canada, Infrastructure Canada, Parks Canada and more, is expected to help with funds for projects worth as little as a few thousand all the way to larger projects worth several billion.

The “Investing in Canada Plan” is expected to help with funding for varying levels of government infrastructure spending over the next 12 years.

The money allocated by the federal government through the aforementioned plan will go toward projects such as highways, water infrastructure and transit. These systems require constant upgrading, improvement and replacing, and keeping up with the demands of expanding cities and townships often falls to a dedicated group of engineers and designers who have to keep the traffic on our roadways from clogging up and the sanitary sewers that run under them from doing the same.

I recently had the privilege of speaking with one such engineer. Alcide Richard, P.Eng., is the Director of Design and Construction for the City of Moncton, New Brunswick and oversees everything from road repair and construction to municipal parking, water distribution, sanitary sewers, developer review and many other critical municipal infrastructure systems necessary for the functioning of the city with the help of a skilled, knowledgeable and dedicated team.

Mr. Richard, an engineer with years of varied experience in the civil engineering and consulting world, began working in his current role about twelve years ago. In that time, he says, he’s noticed a number of changes in the field, not only in the technologies employed in the design and maintenance of his city’s infrastructure, but also a philosophical change in the attitude toward the management of city assets.

The way planning and funding for infrastructure projects is undertaken has also undergone a transformation in the last couple of decades. According to Mr. Richard, a larger emphasis on asset management started to take hold shortly after the beginning of the new millennium. Stakeholders from all facets of the civil engineering sector, from government officials to planners and designers, to professional associations and consultants, worried about the aging infrastructure across Canada, started discussing how to best go about maintaining and replacing the infrastructure that was nearing the end of its expected life cycle while also looking back at past practices and policies. This retrospective led to the adoption of different funding models.

Previously, governments would often fund infrastructure in large sums over short spans, which leads to a boom and bust cycle in construction, sometimes even causing a shortage of available contractors to undertake all the planned projects while leaving a shortage of work when funding is lean. For the last 15 or so years, however, the way that money is spent by governments has been evened out so as to provide a steady stream of funding, which allows planners at all levels of government to plan for a manageable number of projects each year, with enough contractors to complete said projects.

Since 2005, for example, the federal government has had a program in place called the Federal Gas Tax Fund (GTF), whereby taxes collected from gasoline sales are funnelled back to the provincial and municipal levels for the exclusive purpose of funding infrastructure projects. This money is on top of other forms of funding and must be used toward the improvement of roadways or other municipal infrastructure.

Mr. Richard has also noticed a changing attitude toward infrastructure, remarking that, “asset management has become a much more important aspect of municipal planning in the last decade or so.” The city of Moncton, for example, now does a lot of what is known as micro surfacing to its main arterial roadways as a way to preserve and maintain those roadways while extending their lifespan. With a price tag per kilometre at about a quarter of the cost of traditional resurfacing, micro surfacing is a good way to add years to a roadway while saving the taxpayers money and delaying the need for full resurfacing.

In spite of its smaller size, Moncton has always been a city that has seen the upside to using new technologies, from the use of geographic information systems (GIS) for the monitoring of infrastructure and the planning of construction, to the use of traffic monitoring systems which allow one person to monitor – in real time – changes in traffic and even adjust things like signal light durations, all with a few button presses. While not fully completed at present, the city’s traffic monitoring system even allows planners to quantify daily and hourly usage of most major roadways and intersections.

With an eye on the future, Mr. Richard and everyone else in the Engineering and Environmental Services department for the City of Moncton are always looking at new technologies that could save money, protect the natural environment and improve quality of life for residents. Mr. Richard remarked that, “we’re always looking for and trying new things.”

Certainly, Moncton is not afraid to try new technologies or materials; within the city limits you can find test sections for newer construction materials such as pervious concrete and porous asphalt which allow water to absorb through the surface, reducing runoff and aiding in groundwater recharge (the reduction in runoff could ease the strain on rain water collection and storm sewer systems). While it’s not a new concept, using recycled asphalt is something planners in Moncton are moving toward in an effort to reduce carbon emissions and reduce the municipality’s impact on global warming, something that has become increasingly important to everyone at City Hall.

Environmental impact and public safety are also the reasons Mr. Richard and his team have implemented innovative traffic control systems within their city limits. Roundabouts and dogbone interchanges, for example, have been incorporated into the city in the last few years. While these systems aren’t a new idea, their impacts on safety and on the environment through reduced fuel usage are now better understood and their benefits are obvious, which is why the move was made to start using them.

When asked what some challenges in the field of civil engineering and infrastructure are, Mr. Richard stated that, “the time required to complete works or perform maintenance – and even things like snow removal in the wintertime – is often misunderstood and often a point of contention.” Even small cities, for instance, have a lot of “lane kilometres,” – which measure the length of each lane of road instead of counting the overall length of the road or highway. Moncton, for example, has over 1000 lane kms, and during a snowstorm it can take a while to clear every last one of those lane kilometres.

As for new construction or improvements, replacing utilities and other infrastructure is quite simply a time-consuming and laborious endeavour. “Working around traffic, pedestrians and existing infrastructure takes time to do in a safe and correct manner,” said Mr. Richard, and a project that seems like it shouldn’t take very long can be quite a bit more complicated than most people realize.

In Canada, the federal government and provincial governments seem aware of the need to fund the maintenance and expansion of municipal infrastructure. While it might not always seem like it during pothole season, our various levels of government do a decent job of funding public works in Canada. With the dedication of engineers and planners like Mr. Richard focused on the management of infrastructure assets, those funds are being used more efficiently than ever.

Industry Changemakers

The construction industry has historically been slow to evolve, drawn to tradition over technology. As the industry is in a state of rapid innovation and advancement, organizations like the Toronto Construction Association (TCA) are working tirelessly to build strong member businesses that won’t fall behind.

June 17, 2019, 7:47 AM EDT