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Municipal Asset Management Plans map the road to success for Ontario communities

Municipalities must continually revitalize their core infrastructure to ensure public safety and provide satisfactory quality of life for their citizens. However, with limited streams of investment available and an increasingly onerous financial burden being shifted to them, this job has become more difficult.

To help Ontario’s 444 communities better address their infrastructure needs, the provincial government has launched the Ontario Community Infrastructure Fund as part of its unprecedented infrastructure investment of more than $130 billion over 10 years.

Through this initiative, the Province will invest $100 million annually to help rural and northern communities with populations less than 100,000 repair and build critical infrastructure.

A deadline of September 11 has been set for submitting expressions of interest, and then the selected communities will be given until November to prepare detailed applications, including municipal asset management plans.

Municipal asset management plans are essential for the Province and municipalities to prioritize where to invest valuable infrastructure dollars, ensuring they’re being directed to municipalities with the most urgent infrastructure needs.

These plans help municipalities track and understand not just what sort of infrastructure they have, but also its precise location, age, condition and remaining life expectancy – all essential variables in effectively planning and managing the cost of maintaining and replacing their assets, which foster continued civic growth and development.

However, despite their utility, research undertaken in 2012 by Ontario’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing shows that fewer than 40 per cent of Ontario’s municipalities had a long-term asset management plan in place.

The problem is rooted in resources. Most of Ontario’s communities just don’t have the staff with the expertise or the money available to undertake these plans.

Consider the amount of work required just to compile an accurate inventory of all roads, bridges, wastewater systems or other infrastructure assets owned by a municipality, let alone the complex job of evaluating their current condition and projected life cycle. It’s a massive, complicated job.

That’s why municipalities hire consulting engineers for the development of plans. As a case in point, the cities of Hamilton, Barrie, Cambridge and Windsor have turned to consulting engineering companies for their expertise in asset management planning.

But while Hamilton, Barrie, Cambridge and Windsor have set a quality standard for other municipalities to follow on asset management planning, the individual plans themselves vary greatly in scope and format.

The reason behind this lack of consistency is an absence of a standardized framework for assessment in the Building Together: Guide for Municipal Asset Management, a provincial publication published in 2012 by the Ontario Ministry of Infrastructure - now the Ministry of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure.

For example, the guidelines list a detailed analysis of the characteristics, values and conditions of local infrastructure assets as one of the planning components. In spite of the complexity of this task, the guidelines don’t provide a measurable minimum threshold as to how to assess the current asset conditions. They instead recommend municipalities to apply standard engineering practices to categorize the asset status into general ratings of ‘good’, ‘fair’ and ‘poor’.

Likewise, municipalities have to apply their own set of performance measures to evaluate the current and desired levels of performance of their core infrastructure. The problem is that performance measures are being localized by the needs of individual municipalities. This inevitably prevents consistency from one municipal asset management plan to another, hindering the decision making process for prioritizing projects and investments.

The Province has made a long-sought commitment to its municipalities through the Ontario Community Infrastructure Fund. Now, the challenge is to refine the current guidelines so that municipalities can present a clearer picture of their infrastructure needs. Given the fact that asset management planning involves a number of engineering disciplines, the provincial government must work closely with different groups of experts. It will be a lengthy, strenuous process but it’s a worthwhile undertaking to help Ontario communities build their success.

(Barry Steinberg is CEO of Consulting Engineers of Ontario, which represents the interests of 200 engineering firms employing nearly 20,000 Ontarians.)

by Barry Steinberg    8/28/2015


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