As a society, we are good at identifying and addressing problems. We just don’t solve them.
This is why problems within our capacity to solve continue to make headlines. It’s as though we need the reassurance of keeping old problems around, ones we understand and can fiddle with, rather than risking new problems to which we might not have any easy response.
So every spring, we complain about potholes, urging governments to fix the infrastructure when all they do, at great expense, is fill in the holes for another 12 months… when they can do it all over again.
Every summer, we complain about mosquitoes, and the city pulls out its antique chemical arsenal and addresses the problem… until next year.
And on it goes. We lack the leadership in business, industry and government to solve problems and the rest of us accept their arm-waving as evidence of doing all that can be done.
Look at the history of infrastructure development in Canada and you find people solving problems. A serious fire threatened Winnipeg in 1904, so leaders built one of the longest aqueducts in the world to supply Shoal Lake water to the city. Canada is a country only in concept until the CPR builds a railway across it, through conditions and terrain others believed impossible to overcome. Electricity? Ditto. Telephones? Done. Road transportation? Have a highway system, gas stations, refineries, tire plants, mechanics, whatever you need.
Look elsewhere and it is the same story. Land on the moon in a decade? Done. Global satellite systems? Done. Instantaneous global communications and information network? Have a World Wide Web.
Problems can be solved, with the vision and determination to do what needs to be done.
So when I listen to the perpetual dither about rail traffic in Winnipeg, underpasses and overpasses, rush hours, transit routes, rush-hour lineups — with most of Manitoba’s greenhouse-gas emissions due to transportation — I get frustrated.
If we really wanted solutions instead of more dithering, they are there. What would it cost? Probably no more than the dithering costs — and it would at least create some new problems to solve.
Want a thumbnail? Move the rail traffic outside the city. All of it. The Kenaston underpass cost $48 million. The Waverley one could cost $155 million. The Arlington Street bridge replacement will be $300 million. What would it cost to replace the old and rusting bridges over the Red River at The Forks? Scary.
Make public transit free, instead of forcing people who can’t afford cars to subsidize the expansion. Realize no one is going to give up a car to pay for the privilege of sitting through the same traffic jam crammed into a bus. If you want people out of their cars, then set up a light rail system down the main arteries so you can go from St. Norbert to Selkirk or from Headingley to Oakbank in 30 minutes — during rush hour and in all weather. Make all suburbs accessible by bus until 2 a.m.
Use the old rail lines for light rail corridors — people weigh less than freight cars, so track maintenance costs would plummet. Dig up the streetcar tracks on Portage Avenue and Main Street and use them to start the LRT in those directions. Turn railway right-of-ways that are not needed into bike paths.
What would it solve? It would turn Winnipeg into a world-class city, make urban redevelopment, densification and population growth possible, slash greenhouse-gas emissions from transportation, and increase the quality of life for all its citizens. The Arlington yards would become prime real estate.
We would no longer be sending a stream of tanker bombs and other toxic materials through the centre of the city, tempting disaster 100 times worse than Lac-Mégantic, Que. — and idling thousands of cars for hours on a good day.
Would this create other problems? Probably — but my civil-engineering classes used to solve problems like this in an hour. It’s not technical solutions that are hard to find, but political vision and the determination not to settle for low-hanging fruit.
Would it cost more money? Of course. But societies have always found the money to buy and build what they decided was important.
The Shoal Lake aqueduct cost more than 10 times the best alternative, one that likely would have solved Winnipeg’s water problems for several decades.
Want a more recent example? Manitoba premier Duff Roblin had both political vision and determination, so he solved the problem highlighted by the 1950 Red River flood, once and for all, by building the floodway.
What will be our legacy?
Peter Denton teaches the history of technology at the University of Winnipeg and chairs the policy committee of the Green Action Centre.