BRANDON -- Having recently set new records for spending and tax increases, the Selinger government has picked an odd time and target for a show of frugality.
In a decision that purportedly will save an estimated $2.3 million, the province has eliminated the 11:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. snow-clearing shift for the Trans-Canada and Perimeter highways, provincial highways 6, 10, 16, 59 and 75, and Inkster Boulevard during non-storm conditions.
It means that every major highway in the province will go without overnight snow plowing throughout the winter, except during snow storms.
Brandon East NDP MLA Drew Caldwell is the legislative assistant to Premier Greg Selinger, and is the only government MLA to publicly defend the move. "We had plows out when there was no snow conditions as a routine and we are altering that to reflect a decision not to have those snow plows on the road when there is no snow on overnight or weekend shifts," he recently explained to the Brandon Sun. "(W)e determined that policy didn't make sense."
Have you ever observed a Manitoba infrastructure and transportation grader or plow-equipped truck driving on a Manitoba highway during a winter night when it wasn't needed to improve driving safety? I haven't.
Progressive Conservative transportation critic Mavis Taillieu is very concerned about the cutback in service: "When it's the middle of the night and the wind's blowing and the snow's drifting, we need the trucks out there with sand and salt. You don't need a storm to cause dangerous winter driving conditions. All you need is wind.
"There will be plenty of problems because of this policy," she says. "Accidents, delays for trucking, and way more highway closures."
Several organizations, including the Manitoba Trucking Association and CAA Manitoba, have blasted the cost-cutting move. Even the Canadian Taxpayers Federation is against it.
"The province needs to make cuts to tackle its massive deficit, but it should be looking at wasteful programs and luxury projects -- like building pro football stadiums -- rather than cutting core services like snow clearing," Colin Craig, the CTF's Prairie director, says.
"The move could potentially increase costs if accidents go up; driving up MPI costs and injuries handled by the health care system."
Craig raises a good point -- there is no sense in the dollars and cents of this decision.
It will only take a few multi-vehicle collisions before Manitoba Public Insurance pays out more than $2 million in write-offs, repairs and other benefits. The cost borne by Manitoba Health in treating injuries suffered in a single serious accident could exceed that amount.
In addition to the additional costs, there is illusion of labour-cost savings. On the occasions when overnight plowing, sanding and salting is done, MIT staff will be paid overtime wages. Other staff may have to be paid standby fees, in order to ensure they are available when needed. "Between overtime and standby charges, the labour costs will be higher, not lower," Taillieu says.
The financial implications of this decision are troubling, and so are the potential human costs.
If an accident happens on a blustery winter night in rural Manitoba and a victim requires urgent medical care that is only available in Winnipeg, what will happen? Will the highway be closed? If it isn't, will the ambulance crew be willing, or even permitted, to make the trip on highways that have not been plowed, sanded or salted?
How about passengers on buses, truckers hauling products for just-in-time delivery, and Manitobans who commute to jobs from outlying communities? Can they count on safe driving conditions when plows haven't been on the roads for hours?
When a government targets expenses for cost-cutting, it is reasonable to expect that some sort of analysis has been conducted in order ascertain that savings will actually result from the cuts.
If the Selinger government has done even the most rudimentary cost-benefit analysis of its plan to park the plows, it will know that the potential costs far exceed the theoretical savings, and that the lives of Manitobans are being put at risk.
I will be very surprised if this decision isn't reversed in the next few weeks.
Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.