Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Doer government makes shock absorbers of us all

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I got my car back recently. Not that it was stolen or anything. I dropped it off at the car dealership and in no time at all, it was ready for pickup.

When I say I got my car back, I mean that for $800 it was restored to the car I purchased three years ago but which, starting this spring, drove like a beater. The driver's-side window rattled and every pothole and pavement break sent a jolt through the frame and caused a hard bang instead of a dull thud.

It turned out the window rattled because the screws holding it in place had shaken themselves loose. One, in fact, had turned itself right out and had fallen to the bottom of the door. That was easily repaired.

Less easily repaired, and far more expensive, was the replacement of three of four stabilizer links.

Stabilizer links are kind of like shock absorbers for the two stabilizer bars, which are rods that help keep the suspension and body rigid. The links are made of metal and hard, shock-absorbing rubber, which eventually are pounded out of shape by potholes and such, lose their shock-absorbing qualities and your car starts to drive like a beater.

I asked the Toyota customer service guy why these had worn out so seemingly quickly.

Well, he responded, when the car was designed, a whole bunch of calculations were made about how it would ride.

My car is a "touring" model. It is designed to give a smooth, quiet ride -- not the marshmallow softness that North American cars once were infamous for -- while also delivering a confidence-inducing stiff feel on turns.

But to achieve both the soft and hard qualities, assumptions are made about the quality of the roads on which the car will drive. These did not include the streets of Winnipeg, or Kabul for that matter, both of which I've driven.

He said the rate of stabilizer-link failures -- and suspension-part failures generally -- has been so high in Winnipeg that Toyota sent technical people here to investigate. Their conclusion? Winnipeg streets are the worst of any major city in Canada, he said.

But you already know that, or at least suspect it. The question is why?

Well, obviously because not enough money is being spent to fix them.

And it won't be spent until one side blinks in the Mexican standoff between city hall and the legislature.

On the city's side, council has properly frozen destructive property taxes and has been demanding since Glen Murray's days a share of the growth taxes the province sucks out of Winnipeggers. On the province's side, the Doer (for now) government refuses to share growth taxes but instead directs its growing haul to its political priorities.

It cherry-picks these to electoral advantage. Separate funding for more police dedicated to NDP priorities, for example. Recreation facilities in NDP ridings, provincial parks for distressed NDP urban voters.

The latest intrusion will be a $40- million price increase to build a new Disraeli bridge to soothe voters in the northeast quadrant who have been persuaded by NDP politicians that they should not be inconvenienced by future construction as all other Winnipeggers have been in the past.

So $40 million for convenience in one part of town and electoral consideration down the road, but nada for potholes today everywhere else.

Or how about the wastewater treatment plant that will add $700 million of costs to Winnipeg to remove nitrogen from sewage despite the protests of 63 scientists who say it's a waste of money. The government disputes the number, but does not say what an accurate number is. One suspects the reason is that it's as politically damaging to say $500 million down the toilet as it is to say $700 million flushed away.

And as the streets crumble, the province is extending freeways south to its super-subdivision. Another goes west to support CentrePort with the expansion of Inkster Boulevard.

The Inkster extension is telling. It will be a new, four-lane divided freeway up to the city, after which it will continue to be a goat path across the north end.

So why won't the province quit twisting municipal priorities and share growth taxes? Because there is no political profit in it.

If the province shares a growth tax like the sales tax, then the city would get the credit for appropriately setting and addressing municipal priorities, and the Doer (for now) government would have less money to manipulate them to its political advantage.

In the meantime, the streets get worse and pressure mounts for property tax increases to address the problem. Should the city blink, should it lift the property-tax freeze, then it takes the hit and the province is free to fritter away money in the profligate style that we first witnessed when Premier Gary Doer catered to environmentalists at a waste of $450 million by forcing Manitoba Hydro to build a transmission line down the west side of the province.

It might be that the politically misdirected wastefulness is on such a grand scale that people simply can't relate to all those hundreds of millions.

We can only hope that when they have to waste $800 on stabilizer links that they know whom to blame.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 27, 2009 A10

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