August 2, 2015


Bartley Kives

Columnists

Whining won't solve infrastructure woes

In the eyes of many Winnipeggers, Mayor Sam Katz is a politician who broke a campaign promise to not raise property taxes. In reality, that's not the case.

During the 2010 mayoral race, Katz promised to do everything in his power to avoid a property-tax increase. In an effective bit of campaign messaging, he did not actually promise to maintain the freeze.

So when the city raised frontage levies in 2011 and then property taxes in 2012, some voters felt betrayed by Katz -- who has now joined the battle against the Selinger government's proposed provincial-sales-tax hike.

When Winnipeggers hear Katz complain the province is ignoring the infrastructure crisis facing the city, they can be excused if they don't accept the message. The irony is, for all of his flaws as a municipal leader, Katz is actually right.

Winnipeg does face an infrastructure-funding crisis, but it would be naive of Katz to believe the province will turn around and do something about it just because he spends a week trying to embarrass the NDP for what really is a failure of all three levels of government.

Almost every municipality in Canada suffers from the same problem: They barely have the operating funds to maintain their existing roads, bridges, buildings, water pipes and transit corridors and thus cannot afford to borrow money to replace them or build new ones.

Winnipeg's situation is particularly dire because of its low density and unique environmental situation. Spread out across a relatively large area for its population, it has more roads and sewers and pipes to maintain. The freeze-thaw cycles associated with the world's second-most-variable climate, next to Central Asia, creates an additional maintenance burden.

There's also the under-publicized matter of the waste-water upgrade ordered to reduce nutrient flows into Lake Winnipeg -- a massive project that may eventually cost the city $4 billion, once you factor in the combined cost of upgrading sewage-treatment plants, replacing combined sewers and burying stormwater-retention tanks.

Even without any additional help from Broadway or Ottawa, Winnipeg's water and waste department could pay for any upgrades it likes by simply continuing to raise water and sewer rates. This is annoying but entirely doable, even as the city siphons off phoney profits every year in the form of an unfair dividend.

But there are other major headaches looming that have no financial support whatsoever. Together, they cost additional billions.

Some time over the next couple of years, the city must decide whether to repair the Louise Bridge, replace it with a new link between Point Douglas and Elmwood or realign a brand-new bridge with Nairn Avenue. The price for any of these options may be well over $100 million. A new Arlington Bridge, also nearing the end of its life, may also cost $100 million or more.

City transportation managers deliberately chose not to even estimate how much either bridge will cost when they unveiled the Transportation Master Plan in 2011. But they did attach figures to some of the projects that appeared on yet another wish list unveiled by Katz this week.

In 2011 dollars, extending Bishop Grandin Boulevard from Lagimodiere to Fermor Avenue would cost $80 million. Widening Kenaston Boulevard from Ness to Taylor Avenue would cost $129 million. Extending Chief Peguis Trail from Main Street to Route 90 would cost $240 million.

The mayor didn't even mention the second phase of the Southwest Transitway, pegged at $350 million, or a $174-million East Transitway. That's because rapid transit would be the first project he would jettison if he doesn't get more cash from other levels of government.

It's fair to say the Katz administration missed a revenue opportunity by freezing property taxes for so long. It's equally fair to criticize the Harper government for shaving two points off the GST and the Doer/Selinger government for squandering Manitoba's pre-recession surpluses.

But no one can change the past. All three levels of government must start working with each other to solve the mess we're in, instead of squabbling like little babies.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 26, 2013 A4

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