By Dave Mabell
Southern Alberta Newspapers
After months of consultation and meetings, it’s time for a decision on maintaining Lethbridge County’s aging network of roads and bridges.
The county is responsible for maintaining about 2,000 kilometres of roadways and about 167 bridges. Some are more than 50 years old and after being pounded daily by heavy haulers and “super-B” trucks, says Reeve Lorne Hickey, they’re rapidly wearing out.
One of the county’s bridges has already been deemed unsafe and closed down. More could follow, creating delays for school buses and ambulances as well as farm vehicles.
The county needs about $3.5 million per year to bring its “market access” roads back up to today’s standards, the reeve says. On Thursday, he expects county council to approve a bylaw – with or without amendments – aimed at collecting part of that amount through new taxes.
Earlier this month, council gave first reading to a bylaw calling for a phased-in approach to a new tax structure. For 2016, it would generate about $2.6 million.
If unchanged, the bylaw would raise more than $1.8 million though a $3 “per unit” fee on cattle, hogs, chickens, goats and sheep. A further $694,285 would come from a special tax on farmland, and $100,000 from a levy on gravel.
“We are home to the most intensive livestock operations in Alberta,” Hickey points out.
But Alberta’s farmland assessments have been frozen for more than 20 years, and the government’s support for rural bridge maintenance disappeared several years ago.
With a rural population of a little more than 9,000 – less than one-tenth of the city’s – the county doesn’t collect much through the federal government’s fuel tax rebate plan, either.
Hickey says the county’s situation was recognized by government MLAs more than a decade ago. They recommended changes to the province’s system of farmland assessment.
“Then BSE came along,” and the government lost interest in anything that could further trouble Alberta’s beef industry.
The county has continued to lobby for access to the funds it needs, he adds, but to little success. With roads and bridge structures reaching the end of their service life, Hickey says county council can’t wait any longer.
During open house sessions over the last month, the reeve says, no viable alternatives were heard. Recognizing the impacts of the intensive livestock feeding operations – on the economy as well as the roadways – “We think this is the fairest way to do it.”
Council remains open to new ideas, he adds, and any new approach is subject to review. But it’s become urgent to start making repairs.
On Thursday, “We’ll do it.”
Hickey predicts other Alberta counties and MDs may follow suit. It could help “other municipalities as well.”