By Bill Karsten

Strong infrastructure is the lifeblood of our communities. It’s the roads and bridges that move people and goods. It’s the arenas and recreation centres where our children play. It’s the treatment plants that ensure our water is safe to drink. Maintaining this infrastructure means maintaining the quality of life Canadians expect and deserve.

Across the country, managing and expanding that infrastructure falls most often to local governments. Municipalities own 60 per cent of the core infrastructure that supports Canada’s economy and quality of life. As the order of government closest to Canadians, municipalities are on the front lines of ensuring that Canada’s infrastructure keeps communities going—efficiently and effectively.

Much of this infrastructure is aging. According to the 2019 Canadian Infrastructure Report Card (CIRC)—produced by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) and seven partner organizations—40 per cent of Canada’s roads and bridges will need urgent upgrades within the decade. With new risks caused by climate change and extreme weather—as well as limited local budgets—the job of managing our essential infrastructure is getting tougher.

That’s why more and more municipalities are turning to modern asset management. By better understanding how to maintain new and existing infrastructure assets throughout their life cycle, local leaders can make better decisions and save money. According to the 2019 CIRC report, 70 per cent of municipalities with 30,000 or more people now have an asset management plan. But in smaller communities—where fiscal tools are limited—that number drops to just 29 per cent.

Making informed infrastructure decisions 

Asset management empowers municipalities to make informed decisions about their core infrastructure. The key is having good data. Reliable data helps local leaders better understand infrastructure assets so that they can assess risks, prioritize investments, and determine future needs as communities grow. It means municipalities can identify when a piece of infrastructure is in need of repair—before it breaks down. It means municipalities can ensure new infrastructure projects are built more resilient to climate extremes. And it means municipalities can assure residents that their money is being spent wisely, with the best information available.

The City of Pembroke, Ontario, knows these benefits well. In 2018, the city received an asset management grant through FCM’s Municipal Asset Management Program (MAMP) to assess the condition of its roads. The city used that data to prioritize its roadwork—extending the life of its infrastructure and saving money. To expand on the use of asset management methodology for maintaining and renewing Pembroke’s infrastructure, the city has since hired an asset management coordinator to integrate asset management practices into all their decisions.

This success in Pembroke was driven by a commitment from both elected officials and staff to use data to make their infrastructure dollars go further. This collaboration is vital when developing a municipal asset management plan. And while there is no one path to getting started, many municipalities begin by taking an inventory of their assets—from roads to buildings to underground networks, such as sewers and watermains.

Once a community has its inventory, it can begin to determine the condition of its assets. Sometimes that’s as simple as an inspection. Sometimes it requires a more complex analysis. But the key is to keep that information up to date. Modern asset management isn’t a one-time endeavour, but rather a long-term approach.

Other communities start more slowly, by applying asset management principles to a single type of infrastructure—say, an arena. That enables municipalities to know when that arena needs repairs. It helps municipalities understand what steps to take to extend its life, or how to make a new arena more resilient to extreme weather. Whether starting big or small, asset management means local leaders can make informed choices at every step of the way—which is what Canadians expect municipalities to do.

Applying for an FCM asset management grant

With limited budgets and competing priorities, developing asset management practices can seem daunting. That’s why FCM’s MAMP offers funding, training, and resources to help communities begin their asset management process—and to support them as they progress. Since 2017, MAMP has funded more than 585 local asset management projects in communities across Canada. It’s also funded 374 training sessions and workshops. The program is run by FCM and funded by the Government of Canada.

MAMP has proven to be so popular and effective that the 2019 federal budget committed an additional $60 million to the program. Doubling down on this federal-municipal partnership will enable funding support for hundreds more municipal projects, mostly in smaller and rural communities where limited resources make modern asset management more difficult to undertake. It will also encourage communities that will work together to share knowledge or resources.

Municipalities are Canada’s builders. With responsibility over so much of our public infrastructure—and with our frontline expertise as the governments closest to daily life—local leaders are building strong, vibrant, and livable communities. That’s why having access to the right tools and information at the local level is so important. It’s how we’re able to build better lives.

To learn more about the asset management resources available through FCM, visit: https://fcm.ca/en/programs/municipal-asset-management-program.

Bill Karsten is the president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2020 edition of ReNew Canada magazine.

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