Should Huntsville be responsible for all of its roads, and should the District be responsible for any?


Roads were once again a hot topic of discussion at the November 29 General Committee meeting.

This time, District Commissioner of Engineering and Public Works, Fred Jahn, was before committee to present an initial plan for how it could download responsibility for some District roads to its six lower-tier municipalities. In Huntsville, that would include all or part of Brunel Road, Muskoka Road (MR) 3, MR 10 (Brittania Road), MR 23 (North Portage Road), MR 31 (Yearley Road) and MR 45 (Etwell Road).

He has been making the rounds to Muskoka’s municipal councils, with Huntsville last on the tour, to share the District’s Road Network Rationalization Plan phase one details — a study completed by C.C. Tatham and Associates Consulting Engineers — and gather input to take back to the District’s Engineering and Public Works Committee.

The plan’s objective states that the “road rationalization exercise has been completed for all District Municipality of Muskoka roads, with the intent of confirming those roads that serve a through traffic function are designated as Muskoka roads, whereas those serving a local function are considered as potential candidates for transfer to the respective municipality.”

The C.C. Tatham study assessed Muskoka’s roads on a variety of criteria, including traffic volume, whether or not they connect urban centres, and whether or not they serve heavy industries or resorts and recreation areas.

What was missing, and what is planned for phase two, is the financial implications of downloading roads to the municipalities.

“We recognize we can’t have a complete discussion without the financial implications,” said Jahn. “It is very costly to maintain this infrastructure. We want to make sure that all the towns and townships would be well informed of those implications.” He also noted that there would be staffing implications at both the District and municipality levels.

The lack of financial details didn’t sit well with councillors.

“That’s the most important piece to me is how the finances work out,” said Deputy Mayor Karin Terziano.

Mayor Scott Aitchison didn’t hold back his thoughts on the plan along with an idea he’s been vocal about in the past: eliminating the District roads department altogether.

“I think until we have the analysis on what that (eliminating the department) looks like financially, this is window dressing and a distraction from what we really should be talking about,” said Aitchison.

Fundamentally what’s wrong with the local system is where both levels of government have roads departments, where both levels of government do the same thing. The District should do one set of services and the local municipalities should do another set of services, that’s how you eliminate the ridiculous waste… The amount of staff time spent just determining who did what and who pays for what, especially in Muskoka where there’s not many of us here footing the bill, it’s asinine.
Mayor Scott Aitchison

In response to a question from Councillor Det Schumacher about the District’s fleet of road equipment, or lack thereof, Jahn replied: “District Roads department doesn’t own a backhoe, a dump truck or anything. It’s all contracted out to contractors or to area municipalities.”

Councillor Dan Armour wanted to know how responsibility would be shared for roads where there is District infrastructure beneath the surface.

“District infrastructure is within town and township roads. That’s always a discussion at every start of every job, this understanding of who pays for what,” replied Jahn. “We can make it work… we’ve been doing it for years and I’m aware of very little controversy.”

At a discussion later in the meeting, Mayor Aitchison reiterated his stance on eliminating the District roads department. “I wouldn’t be prepared to entertain taking any District roads back without seeing the analysis of what it looks like if we took them all. And with the proviso that the District levy is reduced by the three-point-whatever million dollars they collect from Huntsville taxpayers for District roads.”

He acknowledged that Huntsville currently has a “massive capital deficit when it comes to our roads”, and that a download of District roads would just add to that. But he said that taking back the District taxes for roads would also provide an opportunity to better manage the way roads are maintained based on their existing condition and traffic volumes.

I think it puts Huntsville in a better position to manage the roads better, in part because what we look at as true arterial District roads in Huntsville are actually in pretty darn good shape… I think we’ll find they are in fantastic shape and don’t have to spend money on them for 10 years, and can take that money and get caught up on other projects, and eliminate wasteful District projects.Mayor Aitchison

“You can distribute (the extra funds) in your capital program and do a better analysis on what roads should be arterial routes,” added Aitchison. “Yearley Road has an average daily traffic count of 40 cars. That should never have been a District road, and they agree. Whereas Main Street is the busiest section of District road in all of Muskoka with over 12,000 cars a day. That’s our annual average. You know in the summer months it’s probably four times that.”

As for Muskoka’s other municipalities, Aitchison said that he thinks most could maintain or cut taxes after taking on District roads, with only Bracebridge likely to have to raise taxes. “In the context of some of the challenges we are having with the townships complaining about OPP policing costs and (paying for other services in the towns)… it’s a shift of responsibility that shows our township partners that we hear you, we are trying to make an effort, and at the same time I think puts Huntsville in a better position to manage the roads better.”

Read the full Road Network Rationalization Plan here (PDF).

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  1. Jennifer Sprague on

    Forty cars a day on Yearley Road? Are you kidding me? I live on Yearley…right by Stisted Landfill Road. People are continually dropping waste and recycled goods to that place.
    What about the gravel trucks, logging trucks, garbage trucks, heavy equipment trucks that continually drive our roads daily?

    Come sit on my porch Mayor. We will watch the traffic together!! 😡

    • The AADT (average annual daily traffic) on Yearley Road between Aspdin Road and Stisted Landfill is definitely higher than 40 cars a day – past the landfill is where it drops to 40 cars a day. I will post the numbers and the corresponding maps.
      I hope you see the broader point of my comments.

  2. That’s easy, Huntsville, Bracebridge, Gravenhurst, Georgian Lakes, Twp of Lake of Bays, Twp of Muskoka Lakes should all be folded into the city of Muskoka with one Mayor and six Councillors.

  3. District government was forced upon us in the 1970’s. We had no choice at the local level. If I remember correctly, most of us did not want it then at all.
    It was said that the reason for this was “increased efficiency” but what was left out was “whose efficiency”.
    Queen’s Park does not like having to deal with a multitude of small to tiny municipal governments when they can deal with just a few “District” or maybe County administrations.
    This said, District has done some things well, others have just been a silly duplication on one side of the arguments or the other.
    At this point there is far too much duplication and all at massive cost.
    It is not just roads, although roads are always one of the first flashpoints that our population gets excited about, it applies to the basic set up of the District vs the local Municipalities and their relationship to the Provincial government too. There is way more government than we need, want or can afford and duplication is common.
    Before we get too far into letting District dump the roads it “took” when it was formed back onto the local Municipalities maybe we need to look hard at the general way these various governments work and relate together and especially the funding.
    It is interesting that District does not own any road maintenance equipment at all. They have managed to push all the actual work onto contractors or other tier government already. Maybe going the last step of this route and giving all the roads back to the local Municipalities, like Huntsville, makes sense if the funds come back to the local level too. Some hard choices need to be made here.

  4. Mayor Aitchison made some good points and some good observations but left out several others. He quite rightly pointed out the superior build quality of District to Municipal roads. This comes from lesser standards of build at the municipal level with no significant cost savings as municipalities use up any savings from inferior work many times over by constantly putting bandages on the problems. District roads are built and maintained at higher standards than municipal roads, just as Ontario highways used to be kept at higher standards before The Wynne government. Owning your own equipment, to have it sit and rust six months a year depreciating, is also not the answer. You own things that appreciate you lease or contract out the things that depreciate; the District understands this well. The same principles apply for staff, let someone else have those burdens.
    Perhaps the discussion at General Purpose should centre around when we are going to start building municipal roads to the same standard as District roads making municipal roads sustainable. Building or rebuilding less roads at higher standards will pay dividends, not political ones but it is the right thing to do.

  5. John Davis has some interesting and valid comments.
    The bit about the lease-purchase decision comes close to the point with regard to costs.
    While it may be expedient to lease the stuff that rusts and the operating staff, one has to remember that this equipment is still rusting away and even though it is not owned by the District, they are sure as heck paying for it as the cost of the rust will be part of the lease cost (unless the leasing company goes bankrupt occasionally to dump these costs on someone else)
    The way to actually “save” money would be to reduce the rate of decay of equipment so that we got a few extra years out of it before it was scraped. Those extra few years are your savings.
    The other way to save is to look at the actual jobs being done. Maybe some current jobs need not be done at all? Take for example the roadside mowing. MTO used to mow all the sides of all their roads each summer. You would see the mowers out constantly in this effort. Now they mow virtually nothing, the weeds come right to the edge of the road. Is this actually a saving? One has to wonder. Yes it must be a saving in mowing costs but now every 10 years or so they have to embark on a massive tree cutting exercise to clear the right of way enough that sunlight can reach the road and trees do not fall directly on the road during storms. Does this cost more or less than yearly mowing? We will probably never be told.
    There are more subtle issues too. When traveling in the good old US of A a lot of state roads are still mowed. Some actually are maintained in an almost “park like” condition. This has the side effect of creating a psychological feeling of relaxation, being in a park-like setting perhaps, on the drivers and they actually seem to drive more reasonably; follow the rules a bit better, litter less and so on. The obviously well cared for sides of the road sort of make the drivers feel invested in maintaining the beauty and they thus behave a bit better. As usual there is more to any issue than first thought.

  6. Too many good ideas; too little time. I always thought that municipal roads were constructed to similar standards to District roads; the main difference in quality owing to their lower AADT (average annual daily traffic). While the Mayor refers to maintenance (and is quite correct in this regard), it is in reconstruction where District staff has the clear advantage in expertise. And what of all the grade separations (bridges; including culverts with spans exceeding 6 metres)?

    This is not a simplistic decision, and the shift of financial burden and staffing are key components.

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