Commentary

Hamilton Using Federal Sustainability Fund for Road Construction

Hamilton 350 Committee was surprised that there would be a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the asphalting, cement consumption and other aspects of the reconstruction of roads and bridges.

By Hamilton 350
Published June 03, 2014

Fourteen years ago the Canadian government established a green municipal fund "to support projects in environmental areas like wastewater treatment, public transit, and clean drinking water." The initiative is credited to Paul Martin, who was then the federal finance minister. First year funding of $125 million was doubled by Martin in 2001 to $250 million.

Martin became Prime Minister is late 2003 and a year later publicly promised to shift a portion of federal gas taxes to municipalities for "green infrastructure". The program was part of the 2005 federal budget - 1.5 cents per litre of the federal gas tax rising "to 5 cents per litre or $2 billion in 2009-10, and continuing thereafter indefinitely!"

The purpose was stated as "to help fund local environmentally sustainable infrastructure." It was also characterized as part of the Martin government's climate change action to implement the Kyoto protocol.

Implementation agreements were signed with each of the provincial governments.

In Ontario a separate arrangement was set up with the City of Toronto while the rest of the province's local governments are covered through the Association of Ontario Municipalities. The Toronto agreement directs all of the federal gas tax transfer to public transit and that appears to be exactly what has happened and continues to happen.

The agreement with AMO directs the funding to "Environmentally Sustainable Municipal Infrastructure Projects" which are defined as projects that "(i) improve the quality of the environment and contribute to reduced greenhouse gas emissions, clean water, or clean air; and (ii) fall within the category of projects described in Schedule A hereto or, in the case of Unincorporated Areas, the category of projects described in Schedule H." [emphasis added]

The initial federal announcement was met with some criticism by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which complained, "These funds are earmarked for transit and 'environmentally sustainable projects', but not for road and highway repair."

This was bolstered by the reality that small municipalities, especially rural ones, didn't have transit systems and in many cases their residents rely on private wells and septic system.

This led the federal authorities to include a category in Schedule A for "local roads, bridges and tunnels, active transportation infrastructure (e.g, bike lanes) that enhance sustainability outcomes" as the last of six groupings in the agreement with AMO.

The first five are transit (including active transportation facilities), water, wastewater, solid waste and community energy systems. In some provinces such as Alberta, the agreements specified that category six was only available to municipalities with populations less than 500,000 and only if it "enhanced" environmental sustainability.

"Funding under this program supports the development of public transit systems, and water and wastewater systems, solid waste management, community energy systems, and community capacity building. For communities with less than 500,000 population, the funding may also be used for rehabilitation of municipal roads and bridges that enhance sustainability outcomes."

Hamilton's use of the program

According to the 2001 unadjusted census, Hamilton's population was 490,000. Although adding the undercount pushed it over the half million mark, Hamilton used the lower figure to justify directing its share of the funding to other projects.

In the first three years, some monies were used to enhance the city's recycling facilities and to establish its green cart and composting program. One road and one bridge project were also funded in 2008.

In 2009 nearly all the spending was used for the renovation of city hall. It's unclear how the latter project fit into any of the six categories, although some new energy efficiency measures were incorporated into the facility.

Hamilton's allocation of the federal gas tax funds is summarized in the two tables below.

2005-2009 Hamilton use of Federal Gas Tax funds
Project Spending
City Hall renovations $30,696,000
Composting facility $18,185,000
Green Cart program $12,986,000
Recycling facilities $9,239,000
Roads and Bridges $8,629,000
TOTAL 2005-2009 $79,735,000
2010-2012 Hamilton use of Federal Gas Tax funds
Projects Spending
Bus purchases $6,000,000
Roads and Bridges $69,479,000
TOTAL 2010-2012 $75,479,000

The 2006 census clearly took the city over the half million mark and a 2009 amendment forced large municipalities to limit their projects to just two of the six categories. By that point, funding to Hamilton had reached a stable level of just under $32 million a year.

Council decided to the monies on roads and bridges, and only after an extended campaign by ward one councillor Brian McHattie, agreed to allocate $3 million a year to the capital budget of the HSR. That division has not changed - over 90 percent to roads and bridges, and the remainder to the HSR.

That allocation is unusual. The federal website on the program reports that "in Canada's six largest cities, almost 90 per cent of the funding goes toward public transit."

The breakdown of spending across the country also puts transit in first place - at 39 percent, with 13 percent to water and 11 percent to sewers, and only 28 percent in the roads category despite the large number of smaller and rural municipalities.

In Ontario, Hamilton is the only large city that spends more than half of its federal gas tax monies on roads and bridges.

Program results

But even the roads and bridges category has a requirement that the work "enhance sustainability outcomes", and the agreement requires municipalities to actually show and report publicly on how they do that.

The specific "outcome" allegedly achieved by rebuilding roads and bridges is lowered greenhouse gas emissions. Each road and bridge project funded in Hamilton is accompanied by a calculation of how much the project has reduced emissions.

Hamilton 350 Committee was surprised that there would be a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the asphalting, cement consumption and other aspects of the reconstruction of roads and bridges.

We inquired of city staff how they do this calculation - and while staff were very cooperative in providing the methodology and data, it was clear that they didn't fully understand it because the actual calculations are generated by a software program provided by AMO whose assumptions are not transparent to the user.

The local municipality only needs to feed in a few basic statistics such as length and width of the reconstructed road and construction method utilized, and the software generates the alleged GHG reductions. When we asked Hamilton city staff about the assumptions, they weren't able to provide them.

Hamilton 350 Committee then wrote to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario for a fuller explanation.

We included a number of specific questions and we received back specific answers that indicate clearly to usthat the calculation methodology is flawed and that the likely result of spending federal gas tax monies on rebuilding roads and bridges is to increase, not decrease, greenhouse gas emissions.

The AMO calculation methodology employed by Hamilton and other Ontario municipalities primarily attempts to measure only GHG reductions, and almost entirely ignores all the aspects of road reconstruction that increase GHG emissions.

The volume of reduction relies almost entirely on two measures. The main one is lowered emissions from vehicles using the smoother reconstructed road. The logic is that cars and trucks operate slightly less efficiently on bumpier roads, and repaving those roads improves the efficiency and therefore lowers the emissions of the vehicles.

The second factor included in the calculations is the savings in GHG emissions from using particular technologies instead of using other higher-emission methods.

The calculations do not include any of the following:

The calculations also do not take account of changes to emissions that might be expected as a result of road reconstruction including:

AMO officials candidly admitted that their emissions calculation methodology is "not perfect" but note that it does provide a number that can be compared to other projects.

"A "before and after" analysis such as these ones makes assumptions and omits certain variables which may affect the results," explained AMO Policy Advisor Jay Paleja. "However, they do have their strengths. It means that measurement is possible and is predictable, efficient and consistent. It also ensures that reporting is flexible enough to apply to 443 municipal governments of varying sizes and capacities (some without engineers on staff), and can cover the 2500 road and bridge projects completed by municipalities since 2005."

Correcting the program

We believe that AMO should correct its calculation methodology to accurately reflect actual emission changes, and publicly report the results. It should also adopt the Alberta policy of forbidding use of federal gas tax funds for road and bridge projects in large municipalities.

Even without these changes, the City of Hamilton can earmark all the federal funds to actual "environmentally sustainable" projects including public transit, cycling, trail, and pedestrian facilities. Funds could also be directed to waste reduction and diversion, and community renewable energy systems.

By continuing to spend over 90 percent of the funds on road and bridge projects, city council is cheating the gas tax program and cheating itself. It is robbing Peter to pay Paul, creating the false and misleading impression that there are sufficient funds in the budget for roads and bridges.

The Hamilton 350 Committee is the local chapter of 350.org, a global campaign to reduce the level of CO2 in the atmosphere from 400 parts per million to below 350 ppm.

7 Comments

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By DissenterOfThings (registered) | Posted June 03, 2014 at 12:59:25

Pretty despicable and further evidence that most of city hall needs to go.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted June 03, 2014 at 14:00:40

To be fair, let's note that the Ferguson Street bridge was built in '08 for ~$4 million and was intended to be about providing pedestrian/cycling connection into the North End as much as vehicular traffic. This likely was part of that $8M from '05 to '09 since Eisenberger et al were marketing it as something sustainable. In hindsight a level crossing (if possible) probably would've been more prudent.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted June 03, 2014 at 16:31:02

AMO officials candidly admitted that their emissions calculation methodology is "not perfect" but note that it does provide a number that can be compared to other projects.

Nice. You could count number of ants seen within 100m of the project and you would come up with 'a number that can be compared to other projects'. It might have nothing to do with what you are trying to evaluate, but you could still produce it.

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By j.servus (registered) | Posted June 03, 2014 at 23:40:51

That's disgraceful. They balk at small change for a bike lane on Cannon, while diverting $80 million to roads and bridges? They aren't just cheating the system and cheating themselves; they are cheating us.

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By jason (registered) | Posted June 04, 2014 at 09:21:37

no surprises here at all. 1950's business as usual at city hall.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted June 04, 2014 at 13:20:02

So if I understand this right: Hamilton got into an expensive lawsuit against the Federal Govt, for having to do an environmental assessment before mowing down a significant forested watershed for the Red Hill expressway. But it spends Federal gas tax monies marked for environment, on more asphalt, through semantic games of categorization and manipulation of the rules. Are the folks behind this from Texas or something?

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By re new mayor elected (anonymous) | Posted June 06, 2014 at 14:21:10 in reply to Comment 102021

Since you have that right, you and all of us can make sure all mayoral candidates are or stay committed to scrapping this dumb-as-#$$*&^% lawsuit. Even swing councillors think it ought to be dumped, now, before another dollar is wasted on this.

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