Minding the infrastructure gap

Combler le fossé de l’infrastructure

Minding the infrastructure gap

Innovative research is a crucial part of the plan to make Canada’s roads, bridges and water systems stronger, safer and more durable
May 27, 2014

Minding the infrastructure gap

We often take public infrastructure for granted. We assume that the bridges we cross on the way to work will remain stable, that our taps will always run with clean water, that our buildings will stand straight. But nothing lasts forever. Everything breaks down eventually.

We live in unprecedented times. Along with the rest of the world, Canada is experiencing a massive migration to our urban centres — roughly 80 percent of Canadians now live in cities, a trend that shows no sign of slowing down. This increases our need for new infrastructure, and it further strains and stresses our aging infrastructure, much of which was built during the post-Second World War development boom. All those roads and bridges, water pipes and sewer systems were built to last. But in those days, that meant about 50 years.

And now here we are, half a century later. In Canada, the “infrastructure gap” — the value of current infrastructure relative to the value of infrastructure that is needed — is wide and growing wider every day. Estimates for the cost to close this gap hover in the $100 billion range. Are we ready to deal with it?

Infrastructure - typical lifespans

Not yet, says Hugh Mackenzie, an economist and the author of an alarming report on the deteriorating state of Canada’s public infrastructure called Canada’s Infrastructure Gap: Where It Came From and Why It Will Cost So Much to Close. In the report, released in January 2013 by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Mackenzie makes no bones about the urgency of the issue: “The evidence is clear, both in the statistics and in the everyday experience of Canadians in every part of the country . . . there is a monumental gap between the infrastructure work we currently undertake and what is needed to re­store a state of good repair and to build for the needs of the future.”

Public infrastructure is never an easy sell for funding, unless the needs are obvious. But “obvious” in this realm is often marked by serious consequences, such as when the de la Concorde overpass collapsed in Laval, Que., in 2006, killing five people and leaving six others seriously injured.

In towns and cities across the country, more warning signs are starting to show. Toronto’s elevated Gardiner Expressway, for example, is deteriorating so rapidly, city engineers warn that key sections of the downtown artery will have to be closed within 10 years. In Montréal, meanwhile, concrete chunks are falling from the city’s downtown Ville-Marie Expressway and urgent repairs were recently needed for both the Honoré Mercier and Champlain bridges, two extremely important connections for the island city.

The Gardiner, then and now

Images of the Frederick G. Gardiner Expressway at Lakeshore Blvd. East and Cherry St. in Toronto, taken approximately 60 years apart. Then, the beginnings of a super highway designed to get motorists across the city quickly and easily; now, a project that will cost the city more than $500 million over the next decade to maintain.
(City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 5619)

So how can we deal with this crisis? The reality is that we’ll need to tackle the issue from multiple fronts at the same time. That means increased public investment, creative public-private partnerships and ramping up our research programs in these areas.

The latter option might just be the lowest-hanging fruit. When it comes to research in the realm of built infrastructure, Canada is already a world leader. The tragic accident that occurred in Laval and last year’s fatal shopping mall collapse in Elliot Lake, Ont., were a wake-up call for all Canadians, but these events also shed a light on the importance of current research in Canada — work that is improving our understanding of long-term deterioration of these structures and devising innovative ways to make them stronger, safer and more durable.

As always, the key is not just to promote and nurture this research but to ensure that these innovations find their way from the lab to the market in a timely fashion. That effort will, of course, have major global implications. The infrastructure gap may be wide in Canada, but it’s dwarfed by the needs of rapidly advancing countries, such as India and China.

Today, Canadian researchers are working to fill the void on a number of fronts. They’re creating new materials to build better roads and bridges and coming up with ingenious ways to repair and strengthen old ones; developing cutting-edge techniques to inspect structures using real-time digital monitoring; devising “green” additives that will make concrete stronger and less wasteful; building innovative facilities to study buried, or “hidden,” infrastructure, such as water pipes and sewers; and undertaking collaborative research methods to spur even more advances in the future. Click the stories on the right to find out more.

Construction ahead

How research in state-of-the-art facilities is keeping us on the road

Buried but not forgotten

Associate Professor Richard Brachman takes the CFI on a tour of the Geotechnical Centre at Queen's University, where researchers conduct heavy load testing on metal culverts and other infrastructure components for bridge replacements.

Long[er] live road infrastructure! 

Associate Professor Lamya Amleh specializes in road infrastructure maintenance and rehabilitation. In her lab at Ryerson University, her students study the effects of corrosion on steel and develop ways to extend the service life of our bridges and roads.

Main photo credit: Sharleen Benoit

  • All urban infrastructure is essential for properly functioning communities, but there’s something about a bridge that really puts the issue into perspective — perhaps because all that separates you from a likely fatal splash below are impossibly huge concrete structures built on towering stilts. Keeping these structures in good working order demands ongoing maintenance of old bridges and, maybe more important, effective monitoring systems to catch deterioration before it’s too late. Nemkumar Banthia, a professor of civil engineering at the University of British Columbia, has developed a...
  • We all know it’s there, but it’s easy to take for granted. Buried beneath the ground is a network of pipes that not only makes your life bearable but also keeps you alive. Just like other types of infrastructure, these old water pipes, gas lines and storm sewers are starting to break down, and fixing them is an expensive undertaking. The hidden nature of buried infrastructure makes it difficult to maintain. Every underground pipe is affected constantly by the composition of the soil it passes through, as well as the weight and pressure of the soil and vehicle loads above. Any combination...
  • The cement industry’s carbon footprint is massive. From the energy used to extract raw materials to the emissions released throughout the cement manufacturing process, it all adds up to an estimated 6 to 10 percent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, this is part of a vicious feedback loop. As carbon emissions and temperatures increase, so does the strain on our infrastructure. Higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere lead to increased corrosion of metal supports in concrete structures, and rising global temperatures and extreme weather events add additional...
  • The ISIS Canada Research Network has a simple but ambitious mission: to ensure that Canada is a world leader in civil engineering. Based at the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg, ISIS Canada works to improve bridges and other key large-scale structures through the use of new materials and designs. The network coordinates the efforts of 185 researchers representing 14 Canadian universities and other government and industry partners who are working to improve infrastructure through the use of fibre-reinforced polymers (FRPs) — a very strong composite material usually made up of glass,...
  • Structural engineers are always coming up with novel ways to build infrastructure. It’s what they do best. But when they collaborate with materials engineers, who work at the microstructure level to create more durable building materials, they can literally work wonders. It’s that type of fruitful collaboration that formed the impetus to create Centre de recherche sur les infrastructures en béton (CRIB), the Research Centre on Concrete Infrastructures. Connecting researchers from universities throughout Quebec, CRIB fosters collaborative efforts by providing a central space where more...