AS candidates for mayor and council in the October municipal elections engage with voters across the province, they are likely hearing a common refrain: "Fix my infrastructure."
In the four years since the last election, voters have had a dramatic change in attitude. For years, citizens said their main concerns were crime and health care. In the last year, deteriorating infrastructure has become their No. 1 priority province-wide.
Polls taken by Probe Research this spring showed 42 per cent of Manitobans say infrastructure is the most pressing issue facing their community -- surpassing crime, jobs and the economy, taxes and health care -- in that order. That number jumps steeply in the capital where an unprecedented 61 per cent of Winnipeggers say infrastructure is the most critical issue facing the city. That's nearly double what it was just a year ago.
According to pollsters, it's unusual to see such a dramatic shift in the public's thinking in such a short time. Why the change? Perhaps it's that Manitobans are simply weary of the seemingly bottomless downward spiral in the condition of everything from streets to water.
Homeowners with frozen water pipes from January to June; farmers with flooded fields in the middle of summer; businesses with trucks sitting in highway traffic year-round, know intimately what a $14-billion infrastructure deficit in Manitoba looks like and how it affects their pocketbook and quality of life. For example, the trucking industry lost $1.5 million every week when Highway 75 between Winnipeg and the U.S. border was closed during the 2011 flood. On an individual level, motorists are feeling the costs of extra fender-benders, higher repair and fuel costs, and time wasted in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Voters in Manitoba are very savvy and they know when they tell their candidates to "fix my infrastructure," they are also asking for an economic development plan and a plan for improved quality of life across the province. When surveyed, 89 per cent of Manitobans agree investment in infrastructure creates a healthier economy.
The Conference Board of Canada conservatively estimates that for every $1 spent on infrastructure, the return to the economy is $1.16. Furthermore, Canadian and American evidence shows that for every $1 billion invested, between 8,000 and 36,000 person-years of employment are created -- the vast majority being middle-class jobs. And it's not just jobs during construction. The U.S. Brookings Institution reports one in every 10 Americans in the workforce holds an infrastructure-related job and that only 15 per cent of those workers are in the business of building infrastructure. A more substantive 77 per cent are hired after construction to operate and maintain the infrastructure systems. Experience tells us the story would be the same north of the border.
The fact is, dollars spent fixing a road, upgrading a sewer line or building flood protection create jobs for engineers, planners, contractors, and truck drivers who in turn buy groceries, invest in homes and pay taxes. It's those tax dollars, paid by employers and the workers they hire, that help pay for hospitals, schools, universities and recreation facilities -- all essential amenities that enhance our social well-being and quality of life.
That being said, not all infrastructure is created equal. Some pay bigger dividends for the whole community. Smart infrastructure investments are those projects that have the biggest economic payoff in the long term. Building the Red River Floodway, contentious in premier Duff Roblin's time and expanded under premier Gary Doer, has already prevented $30 billion in damages, the Manitoba government says. That was smart infrastructure investment.
Our future municipal leaders are inheriting an infrastructure deficit that will take a great deal of commitment and creativity to resolve. But candidates who think this is a short-term vote-getter need to learn more about the strong links between infrastructure investment, gains in economic productivity, and improved quality of life for all of us.
Chris Lorenc is President of the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association and Chuck Davidson is President of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce.