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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