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Municipalities can look to research labs for cost-effective solutions to infrastructure renewal

By Dr. Gilles Patry

In 2004, when the parking garage at the Place du Portage government complex in Gatineau needed repairs, Public Works and Government Services Canada incorporated cutting-edge technology into the design. Instead of employing typical steel reinforcements, the structural slabs use fibre reinforced polymers: high-strength, non-corroding, composite materials. Developed by the ISIS Canada Research Network, a collaborative group of almost 200 civil engineers across Canada that is based at the University of Manitoba, the technology helps cities cut costs and doubles the expected lifespan of the slabs, from 50 to 100 years. It has been applied across the country and is just one example of how leading-edge research can address the infrastructure renewal that is so sorely needed in this country’s major cities.

Today, municipalities and provinces of all sizes are staring down gigantic price tags associated with fixing and replacing the roads, sewers, utilities and other infrastructure that sustains our cities. Together with the federal government, which in March announced a $14 billion New Building Canada Fund as part of a larger $53 billion plan to rejuvenate Canadian infrastructure over the next 10 years, they are all looking for the most efficient ways to meet the existing needs. This challenge was on the agenda when mayors, councillors and city staff met this past weekend in Niagara Falls for the annual conference of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM).

And rightly so. Last year, a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives identified a $145 billion “infrastructure gap,” defined as the value of current infrastructure relative to the value of infrastructure that is needed. Given the increasing pressures on all levels of government to address the infrastructure deficit — not to mention the evidence that infrastructure is not keeping up: potholes, boil-water advisories, sewer backups and power outages — Canadian cities are at a critical juncture. The majority of Canada’s roads, bridges, and sewer and water systems are now operating well beyond their expected lifespan and are due for an overhaul.

Amid the discussion about how we will pay to upgrade our urban infrastructure, let us not lose sight of the equally critical question of how the infrastructure of the future will be built. Research and innovation is, and will continue to be, a key part of the answer to both questions.

Cities face very different challenges than they did shortly after the Second World War, when the majority of our urban infrastructure was installed. Given that 80 percent of Canadians now live in large and small urban centres and weather patterns are shifting, there is unprecedented pressure on aging infrastructure. The technologies of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s simply won’t cut it in the 21st century.

The modern challenges cities are contending with today demand increasingly innovative, and cost-effective, solutions. The work being done in universities and colleges across the country is doing just that.

A research team at the University of British Columbia has created synthetic high-performance fibres that can be sprayed through a high-pressure hose directly onto old concrete bridges and overpasses to increase their strength and durability. The spray coating is also fitted with fibre optic sensors that can send digital signals to engineers so they can monitor the structure’s condition in real time.

At Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., researchers have created a cement additive that strengthens concrete by up to 40 percent and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by using less material, making it both green and cost-effective over the long run.

Not only are these advances part of the solution for Canadian cities, but technologies like these can also be applied to global infrastructure gaps, translating into significant economic benefits for the country.

As municipalities and provinces move forward in developing their infrastructure renewal plans, they will need to look to this kind of cutting-edge research to save money and to ensure that their vital support systems are up to the task of withstanding the demands in the century ahead.

Dr. Gilles Patry, P.Eng., is President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, a civil engineer and a specialist in wastewater treatment, a key component of urban infrastructure. A version of this opinion piece originally appeared on the Toronto Star’s website on May 27.