Highway 75 back in business but at great cost
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Highway 75 is fully open to drivers for the first time in more than a month, but the impact of its closure and local flooding is still being felt by Morris residents.
The province first shuttered a length of the road which crosses the U.S. border and is widely used for trucking May 2, after an overflowing Red River forced the closure of a ring dike at the town some 60 kilometres south of Winnipeg.
While the southbound portion was reopened May 27, the northbound section was blocked until Monday evening.
The four-week closure was the first of its kind in more than a decade, said Ralph Groening, reeve of the Rural Municipality of Morris.
“It still has a really serious impact on everybody in the region,” he told the Free Press on Tuesday.
“Our life just has been different for the last month-and-a-half to two months. Travelling is difficult, getting anywhere has become more difficult. So we’re slowly returning to normal.”
Flood water has damaged shoulders and material at some lane edges along the highway. Traffic control devices have been placed to mark hazards and the province plans to repair this damage once flooding recedes, a spokesperson said in an email.
While Provincial Road 246 on the nearby east side of the Red River has been upgraded to serve as a detour around Highway 75, the province was planning to extend the dike south of Morris but it wasn’t finished in time, Mayor Scott Crick said.
“It’s just a shame that dike wasn’t completed, because if it had been, the disruption to us locally, it would have been nominal,” he said. “Unfortunately, that 200 yards of highway which was just underwater was enough to prevent this trade corridor from being in effect.”
Morris dike extension work is scheduled for the summer, a provincial spokesperson.
With both sides of the highway closed, many of the people who frequent Morris businesses from the surrounding region went elsewhere. Over the past month, Crick said, many local business owners already suffering from the fallout of COVID-19 pandemic-related losses saw a further 50 per cent drop or more in sales.
Businesses in Morris have fallen through the cracks of provincial and federal support, the mayor said: because the town is open and operational, they can’t apply for business interruption insurance, and because they’re protected by the dike and not water damaged, they’re not eligible for disaster financial assistance.
Crick said he’s reached out to the province twice to ask the disaster financial assistance program be expanded to include sunk costs in Morris, but hasn’t received a response.
“The infrastructure, they’re still working on it, that will eventually be remedied. But what are we going to do when it wasn’t remedied? And how can we help out these local businesses?” the mayor said.
“We’re not even talking millions of dollars here, we’re talking thousands of dollars for small mom-and-pop businesses to be able to remain open and keep up to date with their expenses and keep people employed.”
The only full-service grocery store Morris took a 25 per cent drop in sales for the month of May.
“It’s affected us negatively. Not that it was impossible to get to us but it becomes a long drive, so it doesn’t make sense for them to come,” Morris Bigway owner Pat Schmitke said.
The detours bypassed many of the local businesses on the north side that truckers would normally frequent, such as gas stations and restaurants, Schmitke said.
“I’ve heard some positive stuff from when Highway 75 opened yesterday,” he said. “You’re visible again to people, and it’s made a big difference.”
The impact of flooded-out roads goes beyond the town. The RM is expecting flood repairs to cost $10 million; around 150 people had to flee their homes, Groening said.
It remains a high-stress situation, the reeve added, as many washed-out and damaged roads mean farmers aren’t able to get on their land, pushing back seeding already delayed by spring storms.
“There’s a lot of anxiety right now for our farm community to get that crop in the ground within the next week, really, that’s their deadline,” he said.
RM officials met Tuesday to discuss how they can expedite road repairs, but it’s possible some farmers will miss deadlines to get ideal crop results.
“The worst-case scenario would be if the farmers were unable to put the crop in the ground, unable to seed before the deadline, essentially that means no paycheck, no productivity,” Groening said. “That’s the pressure that the farm community is living with.”
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.