It's the right thing to do, but that probably won't save Manitoba Public Insurance from a firestorm of criticism.
MPI is quietly preparing to make an investment in roads and streets. Although it has consistently and vigorously resisted earlier proposals to put cash into hard infrastructure, MPI president Marilyn McLaren said it makes sense to contribute to projects that improve road safety.
No one knows yet how much money MPI will invest, which projects will benefit or when it will begin. McLaren said the spade work is being done to pave the way for pilot projects next year. The infrastructure funding will be part of a revamped road-safety program. "The board of directors has decided... to do some work this year on a made-in-Manitoba approach, something that I think Manitobans will support."
The theory behind MPI's investment is sound. Many private insurance companies in the United States, and public insurers such as the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, have for some years been making strategic investments in infrastructure to improve safety and, ultimately, reduce claims costs. These investments have helped governments add enhanced safety features such as left-hand turn lanes and new signals at collision-prone intersections, or new guard rails and rumble strips on stretches of highway.
McLaren said MPI will likely limit its participation to urban centres, contribute a minority of the funds needed for any single infrastructure project, and invest only where there is a clear road-safety imperative. "We want to be very clear about the context in which we would move outside the pure insurance role," she said. "If we clarify the context, I think (the public) are not going to have any problem with it."
Clarifying the context may be easier said than done. The use of MPI funds for anything other than claims costs and rebates is about as touchy a political issue as you can get in Manitoba. MPI has always been a lightning rod for controversy despite the fact Manitobans enjoy among the lowest auto insurance rates in North America.
Remember MPI's attempts in 2000 to channel $20 million in surplus funds to post-secondary institutions? Although the goal was worthy, many ratepayers and the populist anti-tax lobbyists howled with indignation, forcing the NDP government to rescind its grant and send out rebate cheques instead. One might suspect that experience would have put the kibosh on other initiatives outside MPI's traditional mandate. Not so.
In 2001, MPI announced it would pay the cost of hiring more Crown prosecutors to go after auto thieves. This was followed with a decision to buy and install immobilizers -- at MPI expense -- in older vehicles. Little concern was raised about the prosecutors, but both the cost and intent of the immobilizer program raised some hackles across the province. MPI stuck to its guns and argued the investments would combat auto theft and, as a result, lower claims costs. The public was sufficiently worried about the scourge of auto theft that MPI was given the wiggle room to step outside its traditional mandate. History has shown both decisions were sound and successful.
That success did not make it easier for MPI to consider strategic investments in infrastructure. Whenever the issue has been brought up, MPI officials made frowny faces and claimed it was outside MPI's mandate. Those same officials could not adequately explain why immobilizers and Crown attorneys were within its mandate, but infrastructure fell outside. Especially when all three efforts are bound by the same motive: reduced claims costs.
MPI will pull out all the stops to publicize the motive behind this program. And it will go on at length about the parameters that will prevent it from becoming just another source of infrastructure funding for a province and local governments that have admitted they need new sources of revenue. All that effort should help cushion MPI to some extent, although it won't spare the Crown insurer from a thrashing at the hands of those who will never accept the expenditure of funds on anything other than claims and rebates.
The important thing for MPI to remember is although they are loud, they are not a majority. An MPI survey released in March 2012 showed 63 per cent of respondents supported the strategic investment in streets and roads to make them safer; 24 per cent of people disagreed, with 14 per cent strongly disagreeing.
MPI should take comfort from those results. It will not stop the vocal minority from howling, but it should give MPI the confidence of knowing it's doing the right thing.
at the WFP News Café
THE only thing everyone agrees on is that crumbling infrastructure is a big problem. Beyond that, there is little consensus about how to find the money to fix it.
The city is demanding more money from both the federal and provincial governments to fix roads, sewers and to build rapid transit. The province claims it is sharing as much revenue as it can. The federal government is busy fighting a budget deficit and won't make any promises about infrastructure funding. Meanwhile, roads are decaying and the cost of fixing existing infrastructure continues to grow.
On Monday, the Free Press News Café will host Street Speak, a debate on infrastructure featuring Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux and Winnipeg Coun. Scott Fielding, chairman of the city's finance committee. Instead of reading a news story in which politicians offer their varied and often conflicting views on how to fix this problem, hear them live as they debate the way forward to better infrastructure.
The event is co-sponsored by CAA Manitoba and the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association. It will be carried live on the web at www.winnipegfreepress.com .
The debate starts at 6 p.m. The News Café is located at 237 McDermot Ave. Admission is free.