Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

The Million Pothole Challenge

Dear Winnipeg,

Well, well, well. So the four horsemen of the apocalypse have delivered their budget presentations. [Sorry, it’s 2019. I should have said horsepeople.]

[Wait, that makes it sound like they’re actual horse-people… which is not what I meant.]

— I wish we were more financially stable. Get it?
— Shut up and keep playing, or we’ll never have enough for our unfunded major capital projects.

( Photo by Dominik Vanyi on Unsplash. Cheeky caption: 100% Elmwood Guy )

Ok, maybe I’m being a little dramatic.

But to be fair, this week we’ve been told repeatedly that you’re out of money. That you’re going to have to make cuts to police service, garbage pickup, community centres and transit, as well as close several libraries, arenas, pools and even a fire station.

You’ve even planned to stop cleaning bus shelters, which seems like the opposite of a rational response to visiting NHLers describing our city as dirty. [Plus, if this is what bus shelters look like when we’re cleaning them, I can’t wait for Tomas Hertl to see what they look like once we’ve stopped!]

Things are pretty dire. I mean you’re LITERALLY struggling to keep the lights on.

But is any of this really a surprise? I’ve been telling you for nearly a year that you’re broke. And you’ve been broke for a long time before that.

Some will say that it’s about time that you start trimming the fat. But does closing libraries and pools sound like trimming fat? Sounds more like you’re lopping off big hunks of meat at this point.

Plus, we’ve discussed this before, you could cut everything to zero and there still wouldn’t be enough money. You’re that over-extended.

So what can you do?

Well, the obvious answer would be a tax increase, even if that’s just a short term band-aid that doesn’t solve the root of your problem. And you’re doing that. 2.33% apparently.

But we’re seeing it’s not enough to avoid service cuts. So Winnipeggers are being asked to make some “difficult decisions“. Again.

By the looks of it, “difficult decisions” just means blanket cuts across the board. Everybody suffers equally.

But some departments are more equal than others.

That’s right. While we’re busy getting rid of basically everything that makes a city worth living in, we’re setting aside record amounts of money for road spending. The sacred cow of city budgets.

But have we done any math on this?

The Manitoba Heavy Construction Association likes to trumpet the fact that every $1 in road spending returns approximately $1.30 in economic growth.

Not too shabby. Although technically, that $1.30 is actually an increase in GDP, and the City only sees a fraction of GDP as an actual return on its $1 of investment, but for argument’s sake, let’s forget that quibble, and assume a $1.30 ROI on a $1 investment in roads.

But what about the other investment opportunities that are available to us? What’s their return on investment?

Here are a few that we’re planning on Marie Kondo-ing:

  • Transit: A 2010 study by the CUTA showed a return of $3.37 for each $1 spent on public transportation. And a 2014 study by the APTA showed a return of $3.70.
  • Trees: New York City has calculated that every $1 they spend on tree planting and care provides them $5.60 in benefits. The City of Halifax found that every $1 they spend on trees returns them $8.00.
  • Pedestrian and Cycling Program: A 2012 study of over 50 U.S. cities reported a return on investment of $11.80 for each $1 spent on walking and cycling projects. And that same study estimated that twice as many jobs are created with active transportation projects as opposed to road projects.

Does this graph spark joy?

But, if we don’t have enough money for everything (we don’t), and we are truly hoping to eventually get out of this downward death spiral of service cuts (we are), then shouldn’t we prioritize the investments that make us the most money? The ones with the best ROI?

The very first page of content in the Public Works budget presentation lists the department’s strategic objectives, which include:

  • to ensure the safe, efficient movement of people, goods and services
  • to provide a safe, environmentally-aware, accessible and sustainable transportation system

Yet over 85% of the Public Works Capital Budget is going solely to street renewals. That is, we’re allocating 85% of our money to the LEAST safe, LEAST efficient, LEAST environmentally-aware, LEAST accessible, and LEAST sustainable mode of transportation we have available to us.

Oh, and it also has the lowest ROI.

Uncomfortable, I know.

But just because you don’t like where the math takes you, that doesn’t mean you get to ignore it. Like they say, don’t hate the mathematician, hate the unsustainable infrastructure spending complex.

Because if you’re going to choose the status quo, you may as well just get it over with and close ALL of it now: fire stations, police stations, libraries, pools, community centres, parks, arenas, civic buildings. Everything! Close it all now. Because that’s where this is headed otherwise. So why extend the agony?

And that way, we’ll have plenty of money to maintain our nice, smooth roads. Oops! Except we won’t. Not even close.

Oh well. You’re already willing to let people take care of their own garbage pickup, transportation, and even tree planting. So why not go all the way and have Winnipeggers do everything themselves?

We could launch the Million Pothole Challenge! Grab your own steaming hot bucket o’ asphalt and get to work, Winnipeggers! Time to get involved in saving the city’s only remaining feature: roads.

[Although, what’s the point of roads when we’ve closed all the places we used to drive to?]

Or.

You could make the choices that are actually in the best financial interest of the City, despite the fact they might be politically unpopular. Take a few choice cuts from that sacred cow to redirect to projects with higher ROI so we can eventually get out of this mess.

Now those are the REAL hard choices.

[Plus, just think how delicious it’ll be! Mmmmm… sacred cow.]

I’ll get my fork.

Hugs and kisses,

Elmwood Guy