Revitalizing Ontario’s cities means overhauling sewers and pipes

By John Michael McGrath - Published on Feb 04, 2016
Crews in Kingston are modernizing the century-old sewer system. Photo credit: Downtown Kingston BIA/downtownkingston.ca

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Like cities across Ontario, Kingston has ambitious plans for its downtown. Once a contender to be the national capital, Kingston wants to focus its growth in the historic town centre, both to slow decades of sprawl and to support businesses along its main street. The plan has one big obstacle: the oldest sewers downtown date back to the time of Queen Victoria.

Kingston’s not alone: big or small, lots of Ontario cities have water systems that are more than a century old. For many decades after the Second World War, that didn’t matter because cities grew out, not in. But now, growth has returned to city cores. While transit infrastructure gets billions of dollars and flashy headlines, Ontario municipalities are limited by the age of the pipes underfoot.

“The sewer systems we have weren’t built for that kind of intensity,” says Kingston Mayor Bryan Paterson. “We see the long-term gain from the short-term pain of the reconstruction.”

That short term pain is known as Kingston’s Big Dig, but compared to the Boston project that coined the phrase it’s quite modest: crews are digging up a few hundred metres of antiquated limestone brick sewer that combines both storm runoff and sewage, and replacing it with a modern sewer system. Modest as it is, without it the city’s intensification targets downtown are just a dream.

There’s a catch-22 for the very local businesses that council is trying to help: as the roads get dug up in front of their storefronts, businesses will suffer.

“Some businesses won’t survive,” Paterson acknowledges. “Obviously this isn’t being done lightly, but these businesses have bought into it because it’s critical for their long-term survival.”

Kingston businesses are trying to take the disruption of the 'Big Dig' in stride. Video: Downtown Kingston BIA

In London, to encourage downtown development city council has subsidized construction in the core by giving builders a break on the cost of new infrastructure needed for their projects. The policy made sense for the city because the existing sewer capacity had plenty of room to accommodate growth. That could come to an end soon.

“We’re seeing more and more intensification for London,” says Councillor Jesse Helmer. “Greenfield housing is still a big part, but it is declining.”

London has just begun to review its policy on development charges to deal in part with this move to intensification. The debate could prove combative. In particular, Helmer expects any discussion of “area rating,” where development charges downtown are set at a different rate than those on the suburban periphery, would cause some arguments.

“Without area rating, developers who are building in areas that don’t trigger a lot of new infrastructure spending end up subsidizing those who do,” he says. A move to a formal area-rated policy could start a fight between developers who have bought land on the outskirts of town and those who are building downtown condos.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Ontario city that’s seen the most ferocious growth in its downtown core—Toronto—isn’t having a hard time keeping up.

Graham Harding, director of water infrastructure management at the City of Toronto, says Toronto’s existing system is so large that in any given year only seven per cent of his department’s spending goes toward serving growth. The much larger challenge for Toronto’s water supply is simply keeping the current system in good repair.

Harding says Toronto Water has been able to work with developers to upgrade the distribution pipes and sewers as new towers have gone up. He says he doesn’t know of an example of the city having to limit or refuse an application due to water issues.

“I won’t say it could never happen. It depends … we haven’t at this point in time had to say no,” he says.

The only place in the city where Harding sees growth potentially outstripping the capacity of the water infrastructure in the next decade is, amusingly, along the waterfront.  In many places Toronto’s waterfront still has the water supply for the old industrial uses it once served, not the more intense residential and commercial uses the city expects in the future.

Who’s going to pay for the new water services as Ontario cities grow up and in, instead of out? In the past it has been through development charges, property taxes, or substantial subsidies from the provincial and federal governments.

Prof. Frank Clayton of Ryerson University suggests that if cities want to finance new water infrastructure without burdening the property tax base, loading new homeowners with the cost through development charges or waiting for federal and provincial dollars that may never come, they should look at a greater reliance on user fees.

“There’s no reason water utilities can’t be paid for 100 per cent through user charges,” Clayton says. “Bell, Rogers, or the natural gas and electric companies don’t charge you based on whether you live downtown or in the suburbs. Charge people based on how much they’re using.”

Billing people for the true cost of water would be a simple solution. It would also be politically contentious. People don’t like the idea of paying more for something considered essential to life. And in many municipalities, politicians have long promised that growth could be paid for exclusively by developers, and not affect residents’ own pocketbooks.

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