COLUMN: Financial fundamentals vs. government protocols

It’s a pretty basic principle for most financially prudent people – don’t spend money on something you don’t really need

On Point by Andrew Holota

It’s a pretty basic principle for most financially prudent people – don’t spend money on something you don’t really need.

Hence, the recent announcement of a $22 million project to widen a short stretch of Mt. Lehman Road leading to Abbotsford International Airport has quite a few folks questioning the sensibility of such an expenditure.

When it comes to traffic chokepoints and capacity congestion, those two kilometres of Mt. Lehman feeding the airport don’t exactly leap to most minds as a priority … and that’s being kind.

Fraser Highway is in the top category, with Highway 1 widening from Aldergrove to Abbotsford or even Chilliwack, in neck-to-neck, or bumper-to-bumper competition for big bucks.

So why Mt. Lehman? The answer is in the complex machinations of three levels of government – and even when explained, still is confounding to the layman.

In 2014, the Abbotsford Chamber of Commerce, in conjunction with the city, compiled a list of five infrastructure priorities. The fundamental was feasibility, as opposed to immediate need, taking into account funding availability, development and land issues, and other factors.

Using that criteria, Mt. Lehman Road improvement was ranked second. Fraser Hwy. was at the bottom, preceded by Hwy. 1 widening and a Vye Road railroad overpass.

How Mt. Lehman even made that list at all is puzzling to me, but ostensibly it was seen as important to improve traffic flow to and from the airport. I wasn’t aware that was a big issue, except during major Tradex events, but moving on…

It is important to understand that Mt. Lehman Road is a provincial highway. (Who knew?) Fraser Hwy., on the other hand, is a municipal roadway, and therefore expansion costs fall to the city.

So, along comes the provincial government last week with $12 million in hand for four-laning a couple of kilometres of Mt. Lehman. The feds are kicking in $8 million, and the city ponies up $2 million.

By comparison, upgrading Fraser Hwy. would be in the range of $40 million, all borne by Abbotsford taxpayers. As Councillor Dave Loewen points out, that type of capital cost is generally covered by developers, who pay fees when they invest in projects along a roadway. That isn’t about to happen anytime soon on Fraser, and the city isn’t just sitting on that kind of cash, so such funding would have to be borrowed, or property taxes increased.

I can hear the howls of protest now. People want new pools and parks and road improvements, but usually sing a different refrain when tax hikes are associated.

And inevitably, the mayor gets blamed for it, one way or another.

In this case, online comments suggest hapless Henry Braun “has his priorities mixed up.” It’s unfair, since the mayor doesn’t decide by himself what gets built in town. That’s a council decision. And when it comes to road funding, senior levels of government play major roles.

What still doesn’t make much sense to a simple-thinking non-politician like me, is why the city shouldn’t be able to take that nice combined contribution of $22 million, and salt it away for a future Fraser Hwy. upgrade. Does either senior government really care what chunk of road in Abbotsford gets widened and paved?

After all, ultimately, it’s all taxpayers’ money.

And to repeat the principle, why spend money on something that’s not really needed, especially when so many other priorities can be identified?

Sometimes, it seems that common sense and government spending protocol are not words often found in the same sentence.

Andrew Holota is the editor of The Abbotsford News

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