By Caleb Dueck
Road renewal — and the millions upon millions the City of Winnipeg spends on it — is a perennial top election issue.
That’s no different this year as voters approach election day on Oct. 26.
In 2020, the City of Winnipeg projected its six-year road renewal plan would cover 900 lane kilometres, slightly greater than the distance from Winnipeg to Minneapolis.
The projected cost of reconstructing local and regional roads was pegged at $847 million.
Winnipeg’s Transportation and Land Use Coalition says it would cost a staggering $600 million each year to meet the city’s road repair and replacement needs.
According to the Current State Report Summary Winnipeg Transportation Master Plan 2050, Winnipeg has more than 8,000 lane kilometres of streets.
But from a road conditions point of view, the news isn’t all bad: the city’ street conditions map shows a good number of larger, regional roads are rated as ‘good.’ But looking closer, a large number of secondary streets in core residential areas of the city glow in ominous red — the mark of streets rated in ‘poor’ condition.
That’s raising bigger questions about the cost of roads replacement, who benefits and who loses out?
Local blogger exposes Winnipeg’s bigger infrastructure woes
Michel Durand-Wood lives in Elmwood and writes a well-read blog about infrastructure and municipal finance called, Dear Winnipeg. He’s also a vocal member of the Transportation and Land Use Coalition.
Durand-Wood said he loves his neighbourhood and cares about his neighbours. Starting Dear Winnipeg was his way to encourage his neighbours and all Winnipeggers to talk about the sustainability of the city’s fiscal practices.
When he noticed, his elderly neighbor couldn’t safely get to a bus, and road conditions in his neighborhood were deteriorating, he said he asked himself, ‘Why can’t we afford our city?’
Everything needs replacing and there’s no money, despite our city’s growing tax base according to Durand-Wood. He said he wonders if the problem is a lack of revenue or of overspending, or something else.
The city looks to new expansion projects in the suburbs as investments, but these investments don’t create the financial surplus needed to maintain what we already have, like our roads, according to Durand-Wood.
Repeated road maintenance results in repeated spending
David Grant is a former Manitoba professional engineer. When the same roads need repairing year after year, “applying the same technique to fix them is not the solution,” he said.
Builders aren’t strict about following engineering specifications for road construction,” according to Grant. “They want to use cheaper, recycled material like crushed concrete rather than crushed limestone which is a stronger base.” This keeps the cities roadbuilders employed, he said.
The Waverley Street underpass at Taylor Avenue, opened August 18, 2019. It’s an example of a poorly built road according to Grant. It’s only three years old, and “the pavement is already like a rollercoaster. You’ll spill your coffee driving on it,” he said.
Better revenue distribution needed?
Chris Lorenc, long-time president of the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association advocates for more revenue sharing between the three levels of government to fund the maintenance of municipal roads.
The old system of tax revenue distribution, in which provincial and federal governments transfer money to municipalities based on their priorities rather than the priorities of the city, needs to be updated, according to Lorenc.
Municipalities own 50 per cent of public infrastructure but only collect 10 per cent of every tax dollar, Lorenc wrote in an April 22 post on the association’s website.
In an Oct. 7 Winnipeg Free Press op-ed, Lorenc posited municipal infrastructure investments are a key driver of economic growth, and advocated for election candidates to report on the ROI of the infrastructure spending they promised to undertake.
“Fundamentally, this civic election campaign needs a conversation about imagining what Winnipeg could be if we put economic growth at the core of financial and budget planning, to ensure revenues reliably grow to serve our city now and into the future,” Lorenc wrote.
Will roads pave the city’s path to insolvency?
Durand-Wood walks along his street in Elmwood covered in fallen leaves. He brushes them aside to reveal large potholes and patches of new asphalt. Every year potholes crop up and, “every year the city just comes around and fills them in,” he said.
In a post on May 18, 2022, Durand-Wood said the city of Winnipeg has increased its spending on infrastructure and roads more than five times annually over the last decade. “We achieved this by dwindling down our reserves and increasing our debt… the city is now about $1 Billion poorer than it was a decade ago,” he wrote.
Is it a lack of revenue or is it over-spending? Neither, according to Duran-Wood. “It’s an insolvency problem. If we can’t afford the roads we already have, we shouldn’t add more,” he said.
“We must do everything we can to get more people using fewer roads, in order to maximize the lifespan of our existing investments” Durand-Wood wrote in an op- ed in the Winnipeg Free Press on September 30, 2022.
This means encouraging the use of active transportation and public transit, slowing traffic, planting trees, and putting more people and destinations closer together, Durand-Wood said.
We are beginning to recognize the problem. Decades of poor decision making by city administrators is not sustainable. A shift needs to happen at the grassroots level where conversations among families and friends will lead to a push for change, according to Durand-Wood.
We only need to look to the bankruptcy of the City of Detroit in 2013 to see the worst that can happen when a city defaults on its obligations to maintain services for its citizens. If this keeps up, Durand-Wood said, “Winnipeg might end up having to default on services, just like Detroit.” -30-
Winnipeg Better has published voters’ guides for all the mayoral candidates — in them you can find the candidates pledges on how they pledge to deal with roads in the city. These are available on the site’s home page.
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Caleb Dueck is on Substack: https://calebdueck.substack.com/