Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

How Many Roads Is Too Many?

Dear Winnipeg,

Last time I wrote to you, we looked at how even if you set aside every single property tax dollar for infrastructure replacement, it still wouldn’t be enough to meet your infrastructure obligations. And you wouldn’t have anything left over for any other services, such as maintenance, garbage pickup, police, fire or ambulance.

But I think you’ve realized by now that your revenue source is actually more than the $585 million you get from property taxes. That there is also another $500 million from various user fees, and transfers from the Provincial government. And that’s a fair point.

But there are three things you should keep in mind here.

  1. There is only one taxpayer. All those user fees, and even the money from the Provincial government all ultimately come from me. I’m still the one paying.
  2. A lot of this money comes from things like frontage levies, licenses and fines… the very things that are decried and vilified as ugly “cash grabs”. The things Winnipeggers like me really hate.
  3. Your Police budget is $300 million. Fire and Paramedics is $200 million. There. You’re out of money again. You can have infrastructure replacement every 50 years and emergency services, but no road maintenance or pothole filling, snow clearing, transit service, parks, libraries, garbage pickup, mosquito control, pools and splash pads, animal services, 311, any staff at City Hall, or basically anything else. Sounds like a super awesome place to live, doesn’t it?

Which brings me back to that 3:1 ratio. Does it seem reasonable that I should be responsible for fully one third of the value of my house for JUST roads and pipes? And only for replacement, not even maintenance? Is it possible that you’ve built too many of them?

But wait, doesn’t our economy runs on wheels? Don’t we depend on your roads for the transportation of people and goods throughout the city? And doesn’t every single road you build translate into economic growth for the city?

So they say. But who are “they”? And could it be that “they” are wrong? Or at least, not as right as they think they are?

Let’s look at an example.

  • You, Winnipeg, have 7,300 lane-kilometers of roads serving a population of 705,244 (2016 census).
  • Your cousin, New York City, has 30,000 lane-kilometers (19,000 lane-miles) of roads serving a population of 8,615,000.

The numbers say you have three times more roads per capita than the most economically productive city in the world. Three times. It would seem that maybe, just maybe, you’re not being as efficient as you could be with your road infrastructure choices.

If you followed the same per capita ratio of roads as New York City, with the roads you already have today, you could service a population of about 2,000,000 residents. Using your current population growth rate of about 1.5% per year, that means you theoretically have enough roads to last you until 2081. That’s right, you shouldn’t need to build a new road for another 63 years!

Although, given that long timespan, you’ll need to completely replace all of those roads at least once, if not twice, between now and then. And it’ll be me paying, because I’m the one who is here now. Or at least for the first replacement, because I’ll probably be dead in 63 years (or else a really crotchety 100+ year-old).

Now, does this all mean that I’m suggesting you should strive to be like New York City? Of course not, let’s not be ridiculous. You are Winnipeg. You can be much better.

Love you lots,

Elmwood Guy