Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

Fixing the Potholes Requires Digging Deeper

Dear Winnipeg,

Imagine your roof leaks. And imagine it’s in such bad shape that it leaks every year. And every year, you call a roofing contractor to come fix it, and he tells you: if you’re going to fix this, you need to spend more money. He told you this last year. And the year before. And the one before that.

Like a responsible homeowner, you listened. You spent more. Every year, you increased your spending on roofing, to the point that you’ve spent as much on roofing in the past seven years than you earn in annual salary. You’ve spent your savings, you’ve gone into debt. All so you could finally fix the roof.

And yet here he is again this year, “This’ll cost you more.”

If this was your life, wouldn’t your natural question be, “How much more?”

Of course it would. Anytime we call a contractor to fix something, the most important thing we want to know is, “How much is this gonna cost me?”

But as a city, when it comes to our roads, that’s a question that’s never asked. How much is this gonna cost us?

There has been a LOT of ink spilled in the local news media lately about potholes, and the general state of repair of our roads. And all of them talk about how much we have spent so far, and how we’ll just need to spend more in the future if we ever want to get ahead of this.

But NONE have asked, how much more?

NONE have challenged any claims of “more, more, more”.

NONE have dug deeper than the surface.

For example, a recent piece on CBC Radio had an audio clip from Mayor Bowman boasting about the record road spending over the past decade. This is true. We are spending over 5 times more annually on roads than we were spending a decade ago. However, we achieved this by dwindling down our reserves and increasing our debt… the City is now about $1 Billion poorer than it was a decade ago. I’m not an accountant, but that level of spending is clearly unsustainable.

The interview also claimed that since 2014, we have redone over 1,000 lane-km of streets, and on average things are getting better.

However, given that we have over 8,300 lane-km of streets in total, it looks like this (not in any way sustainable) level of spending is only doing about 40% of the work we need done every year. I’m not an engineer, but that level of maintenance is clearly insufficient.

So why the claim that streets are getting better on average? We should remember that just a decade ago, places like Waverley West barely even existed. So all the streets in Waverley West are still new enough that they haven’t needed work yet. Same for Amber Trails, parts of Transcona, and the list goes on. Add up the numbers in consecutive annual reports, and we quickly see that we’ve been adding as many new lane-km of roads as we’ve repaired old ones. That’ll tend to skew up the “average condition” of our roads.

But crucially, in the very near future, all those streets will also require repair. That’s right. Every single street from, as Councillor Lukes is fond of saying, “a city the size of Brandon”, will be added to the repair queue. That’s in addition to the ones we repaired in 2014-2015 when we first started this never-before-seen road spending spree (they’ll need redoing again), PLUS all the other streets we still haven’t gotten to yet.

I’m not a city planner, but that’s clearly a recipe for city decline by design.

So yeah, we have record road spending, sure. We need more money, fine. But, how much more? And is that target even achievable? The interviewer never asked…

I wrote a piece on this very subject a few months ago. If you don’t want to re-read it, the general gist of it is:

  • we have $15+ Billion worth of roads (from the City’s 2018 State of Infrastructure report) which need to be repaired/replaced periodically, forever.
  • Using 4% as a replacement rate (which allows for a rehabilitation @ 25% cost in years 10, 20, 30 and 40 and a full replacement @ 100% cost in year 50), we’d need an additional $600 million PER YEAR over and above what we’re spending now.
  • That kind of money would require a doubling of our property taxes, or the complete elimination of the police and fire departments and STILL having to find another $100 million per year (the entire Community Services department, for example), or else a 2% PST increase (if we’re asking the Province to pay).

Realistically, the money needed doesn’t exist, and it never will. Even if we ask the Province to pay. I mean, remember what happened to the last guy who tried to increase the PST to spend on infrastructure?

Now, a 4% replacement rate is the number used by every developer’s cost-benefit analysis when they present a new suburb to the City (even though, according to reports from City staff that say the initial, up-front capital cost “only accounts for approximately 20-25% of the lifecycle cost of owning and operating an asset”, implying we need to be spending at an 8-10% annual replacement rate).

But ok, we don’t like 4%… how about 3%? Heck, why not just cut that in half and use 2%? That’s enough for a full replacement every 50 years, with NO maintenance in between (no pothole filling, no crack sealing, no mill-and-fills, no periodic rehabs). Cool, cool. And now we only need a 50% property tax increase… just for roads. Makes the current 2.33% seem inconsequential, doesn’t it? And of course, none of that increase covers anything else we might want to take better care of, like sewers, trees, libraries, rec centres, arenas, pools, civic buildings, fire halls and police stations.

This is an unfillable pothole.

Until we change how we approach transportation and land use in Winnipeg, our roads will continue to get worse and worse and worse. Until the City goes bankrupt. That’s just math.

You may not like how we got here, but here we are. We have more roads than we can ever dream of affording to maintain. THAT is what we need to be talking about as a City, especially going into an election. Unfortunately, it looks like local media hasn’t gotten the memo.

Like it or not, local media has a lot of power to determine what conversations we are going to have around the issues going into this election. What they report on can frame what we talk about.

But with great power comes great responsibility.

The responsibility to ask the tough questions. To dig deeper. To ask, how much more?

We need to remember that local media, like local government, is here to serve us. And if they’re not doing their job adequately, it’s up to us to hold them to task.

Now, it’s true that we are free to write Letters to the Editor, or submit op-eds for publication, in order to bring these issues to light. And you could point to Brent Bellamy’s excellent column in Monday’s Free Press as the exception that proves the rule. [And I’m not just saying that because I got mentioned in there.]

But the problem with Letters to the Editor, or op-eds, or even great analysis pieces like Brent’s, is this: they are all labeled as “Opinion”.

Think about that. The pieces we get to see in the media that do the math, using facts and figures pulled directly from City reports, are “Opinion”. Yet, when one of the City’s largest professional lobby groups asks for a blank cheque for their industry to “fix the roads”, that’s reported as “News”. With no further context or commentary.

Recognizing that bias is important.

That’s why I’ve started writing directly to journalists who put out stories about roads and potholes that accept the current narrative of “more”, without asking “how much more”. I’m inviting you to start doing the same. We deserve better. [But please be polite.]

As an aside, I think our established local media could learn a lot from the senior journalism students at RRC Polytechnic. They’ve put together an excellent resource for the coming election, specifically seeking to dig deeper on these (and other) important issues. You should check it out. [Again, I’m not just saying that because I got mentioned in there.]

And finally, if you’re a journalist, politician, public servant, or a community member who just cares about our city, and is interested in learning more about fixing our transportation issues, I urge you to attend next week’s event with Strong Towns’ Chuck Marohn. This previously sold-out event put on by the Green Action Centre has been moved to a new (larger) venue, so a few extra tickets have become available. You’ll get to hear a keynote by Chuck, participate in hands-on activities to better transportation in Winnipeg, plus you get lunch!

I can’t wait to see you there!


Elmwood Guy