Heather Mallick: The story of the little bridge built on the cheap
Taxes are a river demon that will suck us all down into the murky depths. This message has been pelted at Canadian taxpayers for decades by business and anti-tax lobbyists. In the U.S. it was injected into the societal bloodstream.
Now Americans wonder why public education is a wreck, self-care means home surgery with a steak knife and a box of Band-Aids, and badly designed new bridges collapse in Florida.
Taxes have magical powers, known as “multiplication.” If bullying Premier Doug Ford and timid Mayor John Tory — neither are brave enough to raise taxes — don’t want to build a downtown relief line for Toronto’s thin, cramped subway system, could I do it myself?
I have $500 to donate and a shiny shovel from Lee Valley Tools. Even if I spent the rest of my life digging enthusiastically, I would have dug a hole more suited to a mass grave than a subway station. But if 4 million Toronto adults paid more tax — property, sales, or income — I could ride that subway in my lifetime.
That’s the glory of taxation. We build wonderful things that add to our quality of life while suffering relatively little financial pain and without ruining a perfectly good shovel.
Here’s a dire story. Bridges collapse when they’re built on the cheap without the tax money to do a good solid job. In September, the brand-new Dyck Memorial Bridge over the Swan R. in the rural municipality of Clayton, Sask., broke two hours after its opening. It just fell into the river, reported the CBC’s Geoff Leo.
True, it boded ill when the town tweeted on opening day, “The bridge is now completed and open but please be careful as it is a new construction and the approach will still settle.” How odd. Cars can’t tiptoe. Shouldn’t a bridge accommodate careful and raucous drivers alike?
Luckily, neither type was weighing down the bridge at the time but it collapsed anyway, which does tell you how badly built it was. Perhaps an errant breeze blew the span off its supports.
Municipal administrator Kelly Rea had been offered $750,000 of provincial grant money with the caveat that the new bridge meet highway standards. But she felt Clayton didn’t need a bridge that fancy, so the town declined the grant and hired a firm to design and build a homelier bridge without first doing a geotechnical survey of the riverbed.
The bridge “was nice and flat,” Rea wailed. Town reeve Duane Hicks said it was an act of God, presumably from his bridges and tunnels division.
Why didn’t Clayton accept the grant, which would certainly have paid for the $20,000 or $30,000 needed to test the riverbed for its ability to hold piles screwed into soil (rather than hammered in, which goes deeper and means business)? Hicks claimed such testing was impossible. “You can’t drill through water. You can’t take underground samples.”
But bridges are built over rivers all the time. Every bridge builder tests the riverbed, whether with machines or divers wearing snorkels from the dollar store, Mr. Hicks.
Rea didn’t like spending money on safety, saying the problem was not just Clayton’s bridge but government spending. “How can we take this little bit of money that we have left and spent it more wisely? And a one-bridge-fits-all isn’t the answer,” possibly referring to Saskatchewan’s standard safety rules.
It’s hard to figure out her thought process. Was it ideological? Rea was being frugal with public money, she said, telling the highways minister that the grant could be spent on another bridge somewhere else. The province remains icy. “The reason (for grants) is safety.”
Rea later said she had no regrets. A more expensive bridge with full funding and testing might have disintegrated too, she told the CBC, though it’s hard to see why.
The bad builder will try again, presumably with expert government oversight. You see, taxation is fuel that burns for the public good. Some of it will be wasted, just as I waste some of my own earnings. But there are safety rules. Tax-funded projects follow them.
As I drive under the elderly Gardiner and its ragged cement, I think of Clayton and cross my fingers.
Heather Mallick is a columnist based in Toronto covering current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @HeatherMallick