The fate of the Southwest Transitway and Winnipeg's infrastructure in general hinge on money. Rapid transit requires about $600 million to complete, while the infrastructure deficit could be as high as $7 billion, according to Jim Carr (Biggest deficit is in infrastructure, April 12, 2013). Of course, Winnipeg is not the only part of Manitoba with infrastructure issues. Winnipeg's roads may be potholed, but at least there are roads. In many parts of the province, communities are forced to survive on temporary ice roads with nothing more than small airplanes to bring in supplies the other 11 months of the year.
The socio-economic conditions in Canada's remote First Nations are deplorable. While some communities are better off than others, it is common to find 60 to 80 per cent unemployment, food prices two to three times higher than in urban centres, high rates of diabetes, boil-water orders and a lack of indoor plumbing.
The root cause of inferior living conditions and poverty in the north is high-cost, unreliable transportation services. Without reliable, competitively priced transportation, remote communities cannot develop manufacturing jobs or produce anything in volume for trade.
How do taxpayers afford to fix infrastructure problems in Winnipeg, where most people live, and extend transportation to the 36,000 people who live in the far-flung communities of northern Manitoba?
Beginning in 2007, the province launched an ambitious plan to replace the ice roads on the east side of Lake Winnipeg with an all-weather road network. The cost to build 878 kilometres of gravel roads was estimated by SNC Lavalin at $2.7 billion in 2010, or about $3 million per kilometre. When completed in 30 years, these all-weather roads would serve 13 communities.
Last month, the East Side Road Authority (ESRA) held an open house to explain the plan for a new 30-kilometre road to link the communities of Pauingassi and Little Grand Rapids. ESRA is exercising great care to identify and mitigate environmental disturbances and to consult with the public. The project is committed to creating local employment and training on heavy equipment for First Nations people. With only two bridges, this road is relatively inexpensive at only $45 million to $60 million.
Three fundamental problems confront the ESRA policy. At the current pace of climate change, ice roads are likely to fail long before the 30-year construction horizon is reached. Only half the remote communities in Manitoba will be connected by the ESRA network. No plan exists to connect all-weather roads to communities such as Shamattawa, Brochet and Tadoule Lake. Finally, one must assume that over the next three decades governments will continue to pour taxpayer dollars into the muskeg and swamps where few people live, when the majority of taxpayers are forced to live with dilapidated streets and growing congestion in Winnipeg.
Given the exorbitant cost of building and maintaining gravel roads in the boreal region, other solutions should be considered. Since 2002, conferences have been held to bring cargo-airship developers to Winnipeg and efforts have been made to educate decision-makers on advances that modern materials and engineering bring to this technology. Despite years of discussion, airship technology has yet to be put to a practical test.
Developers claim 20-tonne-lift cargo airships could be competitive with ice roads and airplanes as they could cut the cost of air transport by two-thirds. A cargo airship would consume only a quarter of the fuel used by an equivalent airplane because of its buoyant lift, and airships can fly over virgin landscapes without any disturbance to wildlife or terrain. Finally, airships would be able to take goods to all remote parts of Manitoba, and do so before climate change makes ice roads impractical for transportation.
People in the north continue to live with housing and economic conditions no one in Winnipeg would tolerate. Tax dollars are poured into a road network being built at a snail's pace. Meanwhile, Winnipeggers cope with crumbling infrastructure and doubts that they will ever see a functional rapid-transit service.
As a next provincial election looms, it is time for Premier Greg Selinger to state where he stands on the use of airships for northern transportation. If the province has a study that rules cargo airships in or out, the public should see it before more money is siphoned away from urban taxpayers to build this rural road network.
Barry Prentice is a professor of supply chain management at the University of Manitoba.