Institutionalized Graft Part II

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Back in October, Taylor Noakes brought up the Conservative “stimulus” plan for the Champlain bridge. Now he looks deeper and sees that this is more than just a bad idea, but rather a symptom of the larger problem of corruption within the system…

I’m not an accountant but I can’t believe that the cost of constructing a $5 billion bridge can be done without cost to the taxpayers. Where will the initial capital come from? Who will pay for the design, materials, salaries, equipment etc?

The Tories have stated that an initially two-dollar toll will be collected and that will pay off the bridge “without cost to the taxpayer”. The toll may one day recoup the initial capital investment, but that investment will most certainly be coming out of the pockets of the taxpayers up-front, unless the fed and province feel initial capital can be covered through investment from the private sector. In that case, we need to figure out what the interest will be on such an immense loan.

All of this aside, we haven’t left the box yet; what if I were to tell you that keeping the bridge serviceable for the next decade has been pegged at only $25 million? And what if I were to further tell you that replacing the Champlain Bridge (without expansion) was estimated to only cost $1.3 billion back in 2007? Moreover, if adjusted for inflation, the cost of the Champlain Bridge in today’s money would only be about $250 million, though this figure doesn’t account for the rise of construction costs (which may be artificially high and thus kind of useless given the established corruption in the Québec construction industry).

And all of this is secondary to the main issue: what is the bridge designed for? The simple answer is that it allows about 159,000 vehicles to cross the Saint Lawrence each day and that is about as much daily traffic as it can handle. So if more than 159,000 people need to use their cars to get into the city, the city, province and fed need to find a way to get those people onto the island in a more convenient and less ecologically damaging manner.

Consider a 2009 plan prepared by the provincial government estimated to cost $4 billion to add 20km and between ten and twelve new stations to the Montréal Métro, extending the Blue and Yellow Lines, and closing the Orange Line. That plan spread the cost across the entire metropolitan region, across three cities, and would likely draw at least one hundred thousand new riders from the South Shore alone.

All of a sudden the lifespan of all the existing bridges would in turn increase, given the drop in automobile traffic across all spans, and the Champlain would no longer be in dire need of replacement. Two megaprojects of similar cost, though extending the Métro benefits far more citizens and guarantees a better dollar value for the taxpayers. This is stimulus done right because it is far-sighted, benefits a majority as opposed to a minority and further allows for stimulus in a niche domain, in this case Métro design and construction.

But when stimulus spending is viewed as a source of financial reward to party stalwarts, the project tends to be organized and designed as though it were a consumable object. And so, instead of designing a bridge to last forever, we design infrastructure to require near-constant maintenance, or take a very long time and very large budget to complete.

Every infrastructure project necessarily becomes a megaproject for the status it brings, for its marketability and political connotations. Thus, those responsible for us are tasked by the public’s failing comprehension of the purpose of government to simply demand as much money as they possibly can so that they “get what’s theirs” first and foremost.

How many Canadian voted strategically in favour of a Conservative candidate during the last election because it’s a fait accompli that Tory and otherwise strategic ridings generally get a disproportionate amount of financial stimulus money? Perhaps we’re searching for a strange equilibrium where eventually every electoral district in Canada gets a $5 billion cash infusion, though it seems as though those on the receiving end of the stimuli don’t change all too often with Tory administrations.

Ask Tony Clement how it’s paid off for the needy constituents of Toronto’s cottage country. And ask yourself if you think this is a financially tenable economic model, whether it can be sustained, or whether we keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

The astounding thing is that this kind of behaviour is lambasted as “excessive socialist spending” and “corruption disguised as socialism” when proposed by a Liberal or NDP member of parliament, and “investing in Canadian families” when proposed by the Tories. They benefit from manipulating elements of our ideology towards their own self-interests and then have the audacity to call us thieves seeking to ruin the economy to fulfill some kind of anarchistic desire to hasten the collapse of our society. Trying to untangle this misguided web of rhetoric leaves me feeling hung over, but the progressively inclined have no choice but to imbibe each time we’re confronted with the spastic outbursts and double-speak of so many glossy-eyed young Conservatives, fed talking points by master puppeteers.

A guy about my age accosted me at a restaurant about a week before the last election when he overheard me talking about my NDP leanings with several similarly minded individuals. He was clearly looking for a fight, and was agitated, as though he felt compelled to exorcise my socialist sympathies for fear of my own damnation. It was frustrating and very off-putting. But what could we do, we had to step up to the trough of life and take in a big sip of crazy.

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