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City outlines long-term infrastructure plan at town Hall

Next 3 years ‘disruptive and intrusive’: operations manager
Prince Rupert mayor Herb Pond outlines the historical context for the state of Prince Rupert’s infrastructure and $450 million infrastructure deficit during a town hall meeting at the Lester Centre April 4. (Thom Barker/Black Press Media)

The good news from an April 4 town hall meeting was the most critical elements of Prince Rupert’s infrastructure problems will be repaired within three to four years.

The bad news was, replacing the 26 km of water pipes will get the city less than one-third of the way to tackling its infrastructure deficit.

City staff and Mayor Herb Pond explained to a sparse crowd at the Lester Centre that the municipality is overjoyed to have finally secured the $200 million — including $77.2 million from the federal government announced in early March — needed to fix the aging water pipes. It is “one of the biggest infrastructure renewal projects in Canada,” according to the mayor.

However, the city cautioned that the path forward with the multi-year project will be a bumpy one, and that the city will still have to find $450 million to fix the remaining infrastructure problems.

The $200 million currently in the city’s coffers includes the $77.2 million from the federal government, $65 million from the province, and $45 million from borrowing. A further $13 million, of the $18 million the province allocated for a roundabout at McBride and Second avenue, will be used on repairs to the underground works in that area.

The city’s director of operations, Richard Pucci, outlined the extraordinary number of water breaks the city has faced over recent years, including a staggering 131 main breaks and 881 service breaks from 2015 until 2023. He said most of the water mains were built in the 1920s, indicating the ancient nature of the pipes the city will soon be replacing.

Pucci added the upcoming construction will be disruptive and intrusive for residents, emphasizing “short-term pain for long-term gain.”

“Once construction starts, it will be chaotic,” he said.

“The long-term benefit of this with new pipes into the roadways means we do not have to do future maintenance … this is a springboard, bringing us forward approximately 100 years of deferred maintenance in just five.”

READ MORE: Feds release $77 million to replace Prince Rupert’s ancient water pipes

According to Pucci, more definitive construction plans will be released by the city within the next three weeks. He also noted city contractors are completing the Shawatlans Road section of water pipes in the city’s east end, which connects the city’s dam with its reservoir.

He described it as “the most important piece of pipe” in the city.

In response to a resident’s question on the lifespan of the pipes, Pucci said “on paper” the infrastructure should last at least 100 years, but he can’t be certain. Because the new technology has never been in the ground that long, anywhere in the world, there is no reference point.

He also noted the city’s asset management plan, which will allocate approximately $8 million annually for future projects, will ensure the city “never gets behind again.”

City manager Rob Buchan reiterated that while the new funding was a significant victory, the city still has a long way to go with the estimated deficit of at least $450 million for other infrastructure projects, including renewal of the city’s wastewater system, water treatment facility and more sewer and water line replacements.

“You can see we’re not out of the woods, but we’ve made great strides,” Buchan said.

Buchan referenced a previous town hall meeting during which former Mayor Lee Brain estimated the city needed to set aside approximately $10 million a year for infrastructure maintenance. But the city manager said after some number crunching, they determined that figure would barely scratch the surface of their maintenance needs.

“Our challenges are bigger than we had known,” Buchan said.

“I can tell you that that $10 million is only about one third of what we actually need on an annual basis.”

Chief Financial Officer Corrinne Bomben said there will be an annual shortfall of about $28 million per year for the $450 million needed to complete the city’s many additional infrastructure projects.

To cover this large annual sum, the city said it is looking to pull more tax funds from the Prince Rupert Port Authority (PRPA). Bomben said the city is currently going after the provincial tax cap, which allows import-export industries to pay minimal annual municipal taxes.

“What we are trying to point out to the province is there is an unfairness to the provincial rules, where depreciation and industrial assessment is transferring the tax burden onto other tax classes, creating uncertainty for everyone else,” she said.

About $2 million a year would be added to the city’s annual budget if the city is successful in lobbying the provincial government, according to Bomben, who said the city is also working to resolve the property in-lieu-of taxes (PILT) disagreement on the PRPA’s property valuations.

Pond said the PRPA is working with the city to resolve the longtime tax cap dispute, though the two parties have not agreed on a figure, adding the port needs the city as much as the city needs the port.

Pucci praised the PRPA for its help in lobbying the provincial and federal governments for funds, saying the port worked “arm and arm” with the city.

Bomben also praised the province for allocating $250 million over five years to the Northwest Resource Benefit Alliance (RBA) will result in an estimated $5 million to the city in each of the five years.

Other topics such as housing, derelict buildings and healthcare were discussed at the meeting, but Buchan stressed the need to secure infrastructure as a base for other priorities.

“It’s not all about pipes, but if you don’t have the pipes there’s not much else,” he said.

Pond tried to contextualize the city’s history, pointing to a period of growth starting in the 1960s with large infrastructure development. He said that recent councils have had to perform maintenance on the massive building projects that were made, but without the funds enjoyed by councils of the day.

“The challenge the city faces … is that we’ve got that infrastructure that’s left over from those days, and we’re now not in a growth phase, we’re in this holding pattern with 12,000 people trying to rebuild,” he said.

Nevertheless, the mayor is optimistic the city is on the precipice of rebirth.

Pond also praised the city’s staff for their work in securing funding, adding that many had been “headhunted” by bigger municipalities for large contracts, but decided to stay in Prince Rupert.

Pucci advised residents to stay up to date with the city’s construction plans by following its social media accounts, looking out for signage and mailout advisements, and downloading the city’s app to receive notifications.

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About the Author: Seth Forward, Local Journalism Initiative

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