We could reduce our costs by eliminating unnecessary infrastructure so that we no longer have to pay to maintain it. But the City seems to build and replace infrastructure as an automatic process, not according to what we actually need.
By Sean Burak
Published September 10, 2013
I've been writing for some time about Hamilton's big and growing problem with its infrastructure deficit. We've got a lot of infrastructure to maintain, and every year we fall tens of millions of dollars short in doing necessary maintenance on it.
One really easy way we could reduce our costs is to eliminate unnecessary infrastructure so that we no longer have to pay to maintain it. But the City seems to build and replace infrastructure as an automatic process, not according to what we actually need.
Here's a case in point: the King Street East bridge over Kenilworth Avenue South was in a state of disrepair so the City decided to replace it - a project budgeted at $2.3 million.
It's designed like a highway, with a separated-grade crossing, complete with exit ramps. But King and Kenilworth is just an intersection of two city streets. Does the traffic volume justify this very expensive piece of infrastructure?
I contacted Councillor Sam Merulla to ask him, and he responded that the city is replacing something that's already there, and that it's on the truck route. "It is redundant to ask whether the bridge is redundant."
I pointed out that lots of streets - like Main and Kenilworth just a few blocks away - are also on the truck route and don't have highway-style overpass bridges.
If King at Kenilworth needs an overpass, why don't all the other intersections on the truck route? If we can agree that it would be lunacy to build an overpass at Main and Kenilworth, why does it seem normal and acceptable at King?
I also asked what process was used to determine that the bridge had to be replaced, instead of some other cheaper option.
Councillor Merulla forwarded a reply from Gary Moore, the City's director of engineering services in Public Works. Moore's reply is interesting. He said "there was no previous recommendation for the removal of the interchange or implementation of an intersection or requests for any change to the traffic patterns noted in any current Transportation Master Plan approved by Council."
Moore suggested that turning King and Kenilworth into a normal intersection "would have required the removal of several homes, extensive re-grading of King Street and would have required a full Environmental Assessment study to be undertaken."
He noted that the infrastructure replacement was partial (bridge deck and pier only) and had to be done quickly "due to condition and traffic requirements".
Main and King each carry around 20,000 vehicles a day across Kenilworth, but while there are only 14,000 vehicles a day on Kenilworth at Main, there are 26,000 vehicles a day on Kenilworth just south of King. Moore wrote, "This reflects the large volume of turning movements from Kenilworth to King and Lawrence, facilitated by the free flow movement of the interchange configuration."
Moore concluded: "Given that we already had the higher level of safety and service provided by the King/Kenilworth Grade separation and that it is more economical and expedient to simply replace the deck, no other options were considered practical or affordable."
I don't want to come across as confrontational - this isn't an attack on either Councillor Merulla nor on the staff involved. I'm also not an expert in urban planning, so I don't want this to be taken as an attempt to change the design of this specific piece of infrastructure.
I am, however, an engineer, a planning enthusiast, a Hamilton lover, and a taxpayer. I think that this project is a clear indicator of some serious problems with the processes within the city and specifically with Public Works.
The roads budget is over $100 million for 2013, and Public Works claims that we are falling behind rapidly: "Annually, the City should be spending approximately $179 million on road and bridge repair." So this year we are simply not going to complete over 40 percent of what Public Works deems "necessary" because we simply don't have the money.
Raising taxes to cover this shortfall is not feasible. So that leaves one other option - reduce the "required" expenditure.
Here we have a situation where we've undertaken a substantial infrastructure project that the traffic numbers clearly show is not truly necessary. The City's knee-jerk reaction is that, for traffic flow and public safety, there was no way not to do it.
I agree we couldn't simply ignore this bridge. But we could have - and should have - looked at alternatives before dropping this cash.
Meanwhile, when I ask for the actual data, there is a delay because it appears that there was never any study completed. It had to be whipped up after the fact. So if there was a better, cheaper option, we never even had a opportunity to find out about it.
Public Works says that Council never directed them to change the traffic pattern. But Public Works never advised Council that it might be wise to revisit the design.
Council (understandably) follows Public Works' recommendations when it comes to traffic engineering. Isn't it the traffic engineers' responsibility to advise council on these things? Isn't that half the reason we pay them? How is council supposed to know that there might be a better, less expensive option if Public Works doesn't tell them?
Basically, it appears that it is never anyone's responsibility to ask, Should we be replacing this infrastructure as-is or should we investigate less expensive alternatives?
Multiply this "blind replacement" policy across every project in the city, and we end up with a totally out-of-control infrastructure deficit.
Another example: Claremont Access. Have we done a traffic study there to determine how many lanes we need? Because propping the mountain back up in order to open that third downbound lane certainly borders on lunacy for a city whose infrastructure budget is a billion dollars behind and falling by $80 million a year.
We just repaved four lanes on King Street - at what cost? A traffic engineer should look at that street and determine that we only need one or two lanes (the numbers prove this).
King Street East, recently repainted (RTH file photo)
If we eliminated just one lane, then we'd save 25 percent on that project every single time it's repaved. It's very basic engineering math, and we must start doing these calculations if we are ever going to pull ourselves out of this hole.
Somebody needs to take a hold of this problem - and fast. Who will it be? If you want to start saving taxpayers' money, this is where you need to look.
I'd like to make a few more comments about King and Kenilworth. Again, this is an exercise in using it as an example, rather than an attempt to get the project changed. I know it's too late for that, but I want to make sure we understand what is happening here.
First of all, 20,000 cars a day is peanuts. It's on the high end of "road diet" territory, meaning King would survive nicely as a one-lane-in-each-direction street.
Neither King nor Kenilworth is a major business route. There would be no disruption to economic activity if changes were made. There is certainly no need for a grade-separated interchange with ramps.
We are currently surviving quite comfortably with no intersection at all - i.e. zero throughput! And this during the busiest traffic season. None of the alternative side streets are clogged.
I commute this every day during rush hour and the line-ups range from zero to ten cars - and that's at a four way stop in a residential neighbourhood that drivers are re-routed through. And we are to believe that a full-fledged overpass here is justified by traffic numbers?
Many of Mr. Moore's comments are frankly bizarre. I have to wonder if he's ever been to the corner in question.
The complete removal of the King Street overpass and reintroduction of an at grade intersection would have required the removal of several homes.
How could he know this when there was never a study done? I visit this intersection daily and I am sure that no homes would have to be removed. I'm curious, in fact, about which buildings were built later than the overpass?
An at-grade intersection takes up a lot less space than an overpass with on-ramps. To revert to previous mode, we all of a sudden need more room than we did back when these homes were built around what was originally an at-grade intersection?
Given that this is a partial replacement of the structure (Deck and Pier only), and given that it needed to be done in relatively short time frame due to condition and traffic requirements, it is the more financially feasible scenario.
Again, without a proper study, this is just a guess. How much would it have cost to bring back an at-grade crossing? What would the ongoing costs of maintenance be of a bridge versus a basic traffic light? We don't actually know these numbers.
The reintroduction of an intersection type of change in design would also have had a major impacts with the other two overpasses
I invite Mr Moore to visit the intersection. Both of those overpasses are at a significantly higher elevation than King Street. Look at the Google StreetView from from underneath the closest overpass.
You can see how Kenilworth has been graded down to go under King, and there is a lengthy approach to work with for regrading, not to mention an enormous width that clearly shows that there would not need to be houses removed.
In fact, I am willing to bet that an at-grade intersection would create an opportunity for the city to put new commercial corner lots onto the property roster and maybe get a bit more tax income!
extensive re-grading of King St.
King and Kenilworth once crossed at the same grade. Yes, there might be some regrading of King - but it would not necessarily be "extensive" as it would appear that most of the regrading that happened when the overpass was initially installed was a lowering of Kenilworth.
we already had the higher level of safety and service provided by the King/Kenilworth Grade separation
This bridge actually offers abysmal service. From King, drivers can only access Kenilworth southbound. From Kenilworth, cars can only access King eastbound - and only from the northbound lane. This is "higher level of service"?
A standard intersection offers 12 "movements" (each of the four directions allows you to go straight, right or left). But this overpass only offers seven movements. So 7/12 options for drivers is a higher level of service?
The reason I bring all of this up is because this staff response basically amounts to making up reasons after the fact. The only valid information we can glean from their response is that there was no study done beforehand. That means is we simply don't know what the options would have been, nor their costs.
We need to ask why they didn't at least wonder about alternatives. Our economic sustainability depends on Public Works being mandated to ask "should we" when it comes to infrastructure replacement.
Too often, we just build (or rebuild) it because no one stops to ask if we actually need it.
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