Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Long and winding road

Winnipeg needs to move toward a more car-free culture

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If you own a 2012 Honda Civic or any other car with a 50-litre gas tank, it'll cost you an extra $1.25 to fill 'er up on May 1.

This is the short-term cost of the Selinger government's 2.5-cent-a-litre provincial gas-tax hike, which is expected to rake in $48.6 million of additional revenue for the province during the forthcoming fiscal year.

The cash, the province says, will be devoted to fixing roads and bridges. But as Premier Greg Selinger has been forced to concede, the province has no plans to spend an extra $48.6 million on roads and bridges this coming year.

While legislation demands provincial gas-tax revenue must be spent on infrastructure, there is no similar rule against taking money out of roads-and-bridges and spending it on other priorities.

To some extent, that's precisely what the province plans to do this year, as administrative officials confirmed during last week's budget lockup. The spin doctors on the political side protested loudly, claiming there are in fact increases hidden somewhere within the budget papers.

But there is no doubt the province is not taking all that extra gas-tax cash and using it to top up the roads-and-bridges budget. Just as there is no question the City of Winnipeg tried to pull off a very similar trick in 2011.

About 13 months ago, Mayor Sam Katz announced Winnipeg's first frontage-levy hike in about a decade, a move intended to raise an extra $14 million for the city last year. Like Selinger this year, Katz claimed in 2011 this extra revenue would be spent entirely on infrastructure.

And he was correct: It went into the city's road-maintenance budget. What civic politicians were not eager to admit is even more money came out of that very same budget, to be spent on other priorities.

In other words, both the city and province have tried to place the precise same spin on a form of tax hike over the past two years. Faced with budget shortfalls, Selinger and Katz tried to dress up the politically unpopular decision to raise taxes with the only form of populist window dressing voters seem to accept: We're taking your money to fix the roads.

As far as spin goes, this is not very effective, as even the most easily confused reporter, blogger or opposition politician can look at two numbers and discern which one is smaller. But the fact this ploy gets used at all is a testament to how much Winnipeggers and Manitobans seem to care about their roads.

Poll after poll reveals the condition of both city and provincial roads are among the top two concerns of voters in this flat patch of the planet. So politicians pander to that sentiment -- and continue to perpetuate the notion that simply "fixing the roads" will cure much of what ails this city and this province.

As any historian will tell you, the presence or absence of a properly functioning transportation system may be the most crucial factor determining the success or failure of a city, both in terms of material wealth and the health and well-being of its citizens.

But inherent in that assumption, across much if not most of North America, is that a properly functioning transportation system can and should be measured solely by the state of its roads.

"I wish they would fix the damn roads" may be the most common complaint in Winnipeg, where the freeze-thaw cycles of our sub-Arctic climate ensure we wind up with some of the most pockmarked, potholed buggy tracks on the continent.

When we travel to the U.S., many of us are left awed and envious by the sight of freeway systems with endless kilometres of elevated concrete and steel-supported overpasses. So we desire these things, much like we desire big-box stores full of IKEA furniture and glass hotel atria full of plastic waterslides, but those apparent amenities are rant fodder for another day.

Based on anecdote and data, it's fairly safe to say many of us feel this way. But I would argue this is folly.

Yes, a functioning highway system is important for the transfer of goods around the globe. But Winnipeg's ever-expanding road system is the key to its endless struggles, as all sane politicians come to realize over time.

Winnipeg is no different from many North American cities in that the primary mode of transportation is the personal vehicle. Cars provides us all with freedom, we believe, even as we know it is more environmentally efficient, less expensive and less isolating to get around using public transit.

Cars, however, are simply more convenient to use in cities designed for cars instead of people. So whenever efforts are made to improve transportation for people who don't use cars, a chicken versus egg inevitably arises.

Spend money on public transit? Many of us argue against it, insisting we should simply build more roads, thus ensuring we must all spend vast sums of money to purchase, maintain and operate expensive vehicles that require large tracts of concrete for parking and, by extension, ensure our cities continue to grow outward and require more roads.

Expansive parking lots for expansive stores ensure retailers pay higher property taxes and charge us more for our goods. But we demand free parking, because we have been brought up to believe it is our God-given right.

Some of us even believe public transit should bloody well pay for itself, because we don't use it. The corollary argument -- that non-drivers should not have to pay for road construction -- is deemed irrelevant, if not laughable.

So politicians and policy-makers put off investments in public transit, even though our leaders are well aware of the arithmetic that makes higher-density planning the most sensible and responsible financial option for any city in the long-term.

The public wants more roads, the politicians shrug. They want to live in single-family homes, far away from anywhere they could possibly reach on foot, the developers claim.

So the people who sculpt the shape of our lives give us what we want. And anyone foolish enough to question this logic is deemed to be a naive utopian or an urbanist geek.

Of course, the price of oil and the inconvenience of congestion tend to increase both urban density and the popularity of public transit. These are the market forces that will inevitably drive even car-dependent Winnipeg toward a more car-free culture.

I would argue our leaders should take us to this place far before the time comes when we have no other choice but to go there.

I say this as a driver. I say this as a pedestrian and occasional transit user.

I also say this as a person who looks around North America and feels envy -- not for freeways, but for the eagerness, elsewhere, for change.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 22, 2012 A8

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott.

Bartley appears every second Wednesday on CityTV’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as National Geographic Traveler, explore magazine and Western Living.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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