We’re living beyond our infrastructure means


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WITH next month’s election spurring big-picture discussions about the City of Winnipeg’s finances, roads are as hot an issue as ever. This has led to many roads-related campaign promises that leave Winnipeggers hopeful for a future with fewer potholes.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/09/2022 (242 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

WITH next month’s election spurring big-picture discussions about the City of Winnipeg’s finances, roads are as hot an issue as ever. This has led to many roads-related campaign promises that leave Winnipeggers hopeful for a future with fewer potholes.

But the uncomfortable reality we need to face is that we can’t afford to maintain all the roads we already have, much less add any more. And we never will.

As we’ve already heard many times, the city spent $152.2 million on road repair and replacement last year. This is a record amount, after many consecutive years of record amounts. And according to some measures, this debt-fuelled spending spree looks like it may have made a dent — for instance, city reports show our infrastructure deficit went down to $6.9 billion in 2018, from $9.9 billion in 2009 (in 2018 dollars).

But looks can be deceiving. And that’s because of the way the infrastructure deficit is calculated. This deficit is just a snapshot in time, taken in 2018, projecting our annual infrastructure spending needs to 2027.

But because every road eventually needs to be replaced, and since their life cycle extends beyond that 10-year snapshot, it means that, by definition, we’re leaving stuff out of the calculation. And that can lead to shocking surprises down the road.

What’s waiting for us outside of the current infrastructure deficit projection, in 2028? 2029? Beyond?

Take Waverley West, for example. That entire area is new enough that none of the roads has needed reconstruction yet. But they will eventually. The entire road network for a “city the size of Brandon,” as Coun. Janice Lukes is fond of saying, will soon be added to the maintenance queue. Turns out all those free roads weren’t free after all.

And just so you don’t think I’m picking on Waverley West, it gets even worse.

Assuming that a road needs to be completely replaced every 50 years or so means any road built after 1977 does not have its reconstruction cost factored into the current infrastructure deficit, since its reconstruction would be scheduled for after 2027.

If we assume a 60-year lifespan, then it excludes every road in every development built after 1967. And since the majority of our roads were built after 1971 — by some estimates nearly 57 per cent — that’s a lot of roads left out of the calculation. And a lot of money.

What’s it all going to cost?

According to city reports, we own about 8,300 lane-kilometres of roads in total, all of which need periodic maintenance and, eventually, complete replacement. The money spent last year allowed us to maintain 113.8 lane-km of roads, and to replace 32.8 lane-km of them. At that rate, every road will get maintenance once every 73 years, and a full replacement once every 253 years.

To bring that into alignment with the actual lifespan of pavement, maintenance every 10 years and replacement every 50 to 60 would require spending about $600 million more per year than we did in 2021.

Some people think we have a spending problem. But trimming that much from the budget would require the complete elimination of the police department and the entire fire and paramedic department, plus shutting down the community services department (that’s the one in charge of libraries, pools and rec centres).

Others think instead that we have a revenue problem. But funding an extra $600 million per year would require roughly a 100 per cent property tax increase. Double our taxes. Just for the roads.

What about the province, or the feds? At the provincial level, we’d need a PST increase of approximately 3.5 per cent for our per-capita share of it to equal $600 million. The cold, hard reality is that no matter which order of government pays for it, that money is ultimately coming from us.

Getting real about this means facing that this is not a spending problem, nor is it a revenue problem. It’s an insolvency problem: we own way more pavement than we can afford.

So then, how do we get on top of this road repair issue? First, when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. If we can’t afford the roads we already have, we shouldn’t add more.

Second, we must do everything we can to get more people using fewer roads, in order to maximize the lifespan of our existing investments. Getting there will mean shifting more people into active transportation and transit, planting street trees, slowing traffic wherever people are walking and putting more people and destinations closer together with mixed-use infill.

Where we find ourselves in the coming years will depend on whether we double down on the same path we’ve been on, or whether we choose a more productive way forward.

The choice is ours this October.

Michel Durand-Wood lives in Elmwood and has been writing about municipal issues since 2018. He blogs at DearWinnipeg.com, and is a contributor to AnatomyOfAPothole.ca, a local campaign to raise awareness about the city’s infrastructure and finance issues leading up to the election.

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