Will we ever get around to doing the big things right?
This is a refrain heard often in debates about the state of Winnipeg's infrastructure. Mention the "I" word in this town, and most born-and-bred Winnipeggers will burst into a dazzling, head-shaking diatribe about all the things we don't have and how what we do have is falling apart.
Urban freeways? Successive generations of political leaders have failed to create a practical inner ring road to move commercial traffic more efficiently and keep it out of the city's core.
Overpasses on the Perimeter Highway? Most Winnipeggers roll their eyes in disgust at having to stop for traffic lights on our bypass freeway.
And what of rapid transit? The traffic woes surrounding the opening of Investors Group Field, new home to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, exposed the horrendous lack of progress we've made in creating dedicated routes to move people to and from critical areas of the city.
We've not only talked about these projects, we've produced plans on how to get them done. We've even passed motions, or included line items in long-term infrastructure spending plans, to get them started.
And then, nothing.
This is not a story unique to Winnipeg. Many cities are hampered by the failure to put good ideas into action when they were manageable and cost-effective. The longer good ideas are left as hopes and dreams, the more expensive they become. Until they become too expensive.
This was the phenomenon discussed Wednesday at the Free Press News Café. The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, through its Bold Ideas series, invited knowledgeable voices to discuss the best way of spending money generated by the province's decision to increase the PST by one percentage point to fund infrastructure.
The tax hike is expected to generate $280 million annually, or nearly $3 billion in the next 10 years. Right now, the province is spreading the money from the hike over an array of projects on everything from recreation centres to roads and schools. The question posed at the forum was whether we'd be better off focusing that money on a smaller number of key priorities.
At one level, this is a semantic debate. The province is committed to spending $1.8 billion this year on infrastructure. With that many obligations, does it really matter if $280 million created by the PST hike is focused on a small roster of big-ticket projects?
Actually, it probably does make a difference. We certainly know a lack of will to commit to upfront spending on bigger-ticket infrastructure projects often leads to inaction. Conversely, there are a few examples of how big, front-end funding commitments moved mountains. Or at least a whack of flood-plain clay.
The recently completed Red River Floodway expansion was the biggest single infrastructure project in Manitoba history. At a cost of $670 million, this project was funded by a special, one-off agreement between Ottawa and the province so that once started, everyone would be committed to getting it done. If the two levels of government had funded it incrementally -- picking away at it for years -- then it likely would never have been completed.
On the other side of the equation, there are many examples of worthy projects that have never even been started because of a lack of adequate, front-end funding. Could we breathe life into some of these moribund projects simply by focusing money from the new PST increase?
Perhaps. Bus rapid transit, for example, would benefit from intensive, up-front funding. Right now, we have one stretch of dedicated busway from Main Street to Jubilee Avenue. Focusing PST infrastructure money on the extension of that route to the University of Manitoba would make rapid transit a reality in this city and still leave some money for other projects.
However, that additional $280 million per year may not make much of a dent in other projects.
Based on construction industry experts at the Bold breakfast, it costs about $2 million to build one kilometre of four-lane freeway. Bridges or underpasses cost between $50 million and $100 million. Based on those numbers, completion of the inner freeway and grade separations on the Perimeter Highway could consume most of the money available from the tax hike.
There was no consensus at the Bold event about the best way to spend the new money. There was agreement there should be more focused consultation.
The decision to raise the PST to fund infrastructure was only made, by some estimates, within a few weeks of the provincial budget being tabled in April. That did not allow any time for consultation with the key players in the infrastructure debate.
The province elected to go forth quickly on this idea, with no warning and without a referendum on the tax increase. That does not mean, however, it cannot take the time now to talk with knowledgeable sources to identify the best use of this new revenue.
Frequently throughout the Bold breakfast, panellists and attendees alike were overheard describing the NDP government's PST hike as a "good idea, poorly implemented."
There is no reason the province cannot take the time now to ensure the tax hike produces the biggest bang for our infrastructure bucks.