by James Martin
Dr. Bala Ashtakala isnt just a professor of transportation
engineering, hes a bona fide media darling. In the past, hes
turned the spotlight on the citys pothole problem. Now hes
worked up over water.
Over the last five years, Ashtakala has become the Montreal medias
go-to guy for matters concerning the citys crumbling infrastructure.
Nicknamed Professor Pothole for his high-profile commentary
on those springtime road hazards, Ashtakala has posed for photos standing
between lanes of speeding cars, appeared on countless radio and TV interview
programs, and written articles for newspapers as far away as the Netherlands.
When he presented a paper at an engineering conference in Regina, his
reputation preceded him and he was mobbed by local reporters eager to
Ashtakala uses his media appearances not only to call attention to what
he believes are pressing concerns, but also to inject real-world relevance
into theoretical classroom discussions.
The pothole issue, for example, is perfect fodder for his undergraduate
Highway & Pavement Design course, opening up discussion about why
some potholes are inevitable (regular surface wear and tear, moisture
seepage), and how they can be minimized (increase frequency of regular
surface upkeep, use better building materials).
Now, following a low-snow winter (and therefore a low-pothole spring),
Professor Pothole is focusing his attentions even lower.
Ashtakalas current pet peeve/project is Montreals decrepit
underground water system.
Weve got a big problem in Montreal with overall urban infrastructure
renewal, he said, but the water supply and sewer system are
the worst problems right now.
The problem has been brewing for a while. He recalls being called to the
scene of a massive Old Montreal pipe burst in October 2000, where he was
astonished to learn that some of the citys pipes may be as much
a century old. Most of the system is somewhere in the neighbourhood of
40 years old but even that, says Ashtakala, is too old.
The pipes have all corroded, he reports. Theyre
full of holes, like a sieve. Now theyre losing 40 per cent of the
good, treated water. Its just going out through the holes! You spend
a lot of money to treat, say, 100 litres of water and 40 litres
is just going down the drain. Its a waste of money.
Repairing pipes is merely a band-aid measure, he says. The citys
recently announced plan to spend $1.6 billion overhauling the system is
a step in the right direction. He takes issue, however, with the proposed
Thats no good. You need those replacements right away. Granted,
you cant do it all tomorrow, but you also cant do it over
20 years. The leaks will continue, and well keep losing water.
His grievance list doesnt just stop with potholes and water
theres also the citys decaying overpasses, and the issue of
rerouting large trucks carrying hazardous materials, and more but
Ashtakala says hes content to maintain his distance from the political
I have a feeling that people take notice of what Im saying,
he said, noting that the current water system renewal project came after
his comments regarding the chaotic October 2000 burst. I shouldnt
take credit for everything, but once you bring attention to these issues,
people take a second look. This kind of attention is needed to help fix
Im a teaching professor. I have no interest in meddling in
politics. My responsibility is to educate, and to let other people take
up the issue.
I dont want people thinking my opinions are based on politics
I go by facts and figures. When I say something, its out