Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

MPI, PUB split over safety fund

Regulator backs idea but doesn't want premiums to pay for it

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The Public Utilities Board has not given a green light to Manitoba Public Insurance's plan to help fund road-improvement projects.

But there are indications the panel that regulates automobile insurance rates is on the same road as MPI with regard to funding road-safety projects.

MPI and the PUB are divided over how the Crown insurer is to pay for such projects.

Money for a new road-safety program, which could include rumble strips or new merging lanes, would come out of basic insurance premiums, MPI spokesman Brian Smiley said, the same as it does now for MPI's current road-safety programs.

Funding would not come out of MPI's rate-stabilization reserve, which stands at about $156 million, MPI's 2011-12 annual report states.

The PUB has been after MPI for about two years to take about $20 million out of its rate-stabilization reserve and create a separate road-safety program to pay for initiatives that would reduce collisions and costly claims, such as when a car hits a deer.

How soon a plan gets put on the PUB's table -- MPI officials have been mulling this for more than a year -- depends on what a yet-to-be-announced independent consultant recommends.

"We are in the very, very early stages of this," Smiley said Tuesday. "We told the PUB we are looking at this. This is very preliminary."

News the insurer is looking at expanding its road-safety program was reported last week by the Free Press and soundly criticized by the Opposition Progressive Conservatives. The Tories say it's the government's job to spruce up infrastructure.

"Manitoba Public Insurance has a specific mandate and that is to provide Manitoba drivers with insurance, period," Brandon MLA Reg Helwer, the party's critic for MPI, has said.

MPI is eyeing the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia's road-improvement program, which began in 1989. ICBC splits the cost of road projects -- such as roundabouts, pedestrian signals, rumble strips, medians, sign upgrades and intersection improvements -- with municipalities and the B.C. government.

ICBC says a recent evaluation of the program found two years following a project's implementation, there is on average, a 20 per cent reduction in severe crashes and a 12 per cent reduction in property damage crashes.

The evaluation also found for every dollar spent on a project, ICBC and customers saved $5.60 over two years and $12.80 over five years in reduced claims costs.

CAA Manitoba spokeswoman Liz Peters said the auto association wants to see MPI's plan before it passes judgment.

"While we acknowledge a similar endeavour has been successful for ICBC, we disagree that this is a strategy that Manitobans would likely support," Peters told the PUB at a hearing last week.

"We definitely believe that infrastructure is the role of the government and should remain that way."

Byron Williams, who represents the Manitoba branch of the Consumers' Association of Canada, told the PUB his clients believe infrastructure spending should also be paid through tax dollars, not insurance premiums.

"But our clients want to emphasize that they're open to persuasion on this, but open to persuasion based upon sound empirical evidence," he said.

"There's also risk that they're dissipating the corporation's energies on too many roles, minimizing the positive contribution it can make."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 31, 2012 A3

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