Can Expanding Roads Solve Homelessness?
I’ve been crunching numbers on our city’s finances for long enough that I already know the answer to the question posed in the title is a resounding “NO!”
But oddly enough, that’s not what a recent 15-page full-colour advertising insert in the Winnipeg Free Press would have us believe:
“Getting our trade corridors, including our urban regional roads, upgraded, updated and seamlessly connected is critical to our economy. The investments will spin off returns in multiple ways: new capital, new ventures, new Manitobans.— Chris Lorenc, President and CEO of the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association, and the Western Canada Roadbuilders & Heavy Construction Association
Equally important, the dividends, in the form of revenues to governments, will flow to all citizens and help our communities address the serious issues of crime, addictions and homelessness.”
Wow. Lofty claims indeed.
Now, it would be easy to dismiss this as the mere puffery of a paid pitchman for the road-building industry. Except that this week, the City of Winnipeg released the draft version of Council’s Strategic Priorities Action Plan (SPAP). And it seems to have directly copied some key elements from the road-building lobby’s sales pitch.
If you don’t know it, the SPAP is a result of a number of meetings by members of Council, including two Council retreats (in January and April 2023), to build agreement on city-wide priorities that will guide the 2024-2027 multi-year budget process, which the public service will then implement.
The SPAP therefore reflects Council’s priorities and actions for their four-year Council term, identifying five key themes along with 41 priority actions for implementation.
Let’s look at one of those themes, “A Strong Economy”, and how it relates to the road-building infomercial that hundreds of thousands of Winnipeggers received with their morning paper.
Page 14 of the SPAP tells us why A Strong Economy is important: “A strong economy is needed to fund city services.”
It also tells us how we plan to achieve it: “… through investment in sustainable transportation, land use and infrastructure investment.”
Familiar messaging, yes, but nothing to get too worked up about yet. However, things start to get a bit suspect when we examine a few of the priority actions that make it up, in particular:
- Priority Action #17: Initiate Chief Peguis Trail extension
- Priority Action #18: Initiate redevelopment of Route 90 (Kenaston Blvd) improvements
At last tally, these two road expansion projects alone were expected to cost upwards of $1 Billion, and make up well over 90% of the total cost of the dozen priority actions listed in the Strong Economy section of the SPAP.
That’s a lot of money. It’s especially a lot of money considering that even without that investment, Oxford Economics forecasts that our city’s GDP will grow by 3.3% in 2024, outperforming the national average, as stated by the Mayor himself on page 6 of the SPAP.
It’s also a lot of money considering that 75% of the priority actions identified in the SPAP for a having a strong economy cost nothing, or next to nothing. Like, for example:
- Priority Action #12: Review the process for land development decisions
- Priority Action #14: Amend zoning bylaws to allow residential construction “as-of-right” over commercial sites including retail malls
- Priority Action #16: Identify strategic opportunities to partner with Indigenous governments to build economic opportunity through urban reserves
So is it curious that the only priority actions for “A Strong Economy” that cost any real money are funneling all of that money to the road construction industry?
Almost like we’ve equated road expansions with vague assurances of “economic growth”…
Some will note that a growing economy will increase property values, which will increase tax revenues for the City. And that’s true.
But as we’ve talked about a lot around here before, it’s not enough for property values to go up. The question we need to be asking every time is, are they going to go up BY ENOUGH to sustain the infrastructure that created the increase in the first place? And then by more than that, so that we’ve actually increased our capacity to provide services?
Because the reality is that any clown with $1 Billion can create growth. The tough part is creating productive growth.
That’s why it’s important to recognize that beyond a certain base level of connectivity, every additional investment in expanding our road network for the goal of economic growth will get diminishing returns until, eventually, those returns turn negative as we overbuild beyond our capacity.
And we have reason to be wary. So far, we’ve built 8,300 lane-km of road space, and the economic capacity generated has only given us the means to maintain about 20% of them. They don’t even pay for their own costs, never mind the additional money we would use to “address the serious issues of crime, addictions and homelessness.” Almost like we already ventured into negative returns territory decades ago.
But this one will be different! Yeah, sure.
Look, I’m pro-economic growth. But we need to do it in a way that is fiscally responsible and economically productive, and not just blindly follow the direction given to us by one of the largest lobby groups in the province.
The SPAP says the desired outcome of both of these road expansions is to “increase connectivity for trade, goods, and people movement.” That’s an outcome I think we can agree on.
But if it really is about improving our “trade routes”, there are much cheaper ways to ensure commercial traffic can efficiently get where it needs to go.
One would be to reserve a travel lane in each direction for commercial traffic only, all for the cost of a few signs and some road paint.
Another would be to institute a congestion charge. Based on implementation in other cities, we can expect up to a 50% reduction in congestion, as people alter their travel habits to avoid the charge by travelling at different times, using different routes, or changing modes. We can even make commercial traffic exempt to the charge (or make it refundable to them) so we are not adding costs to the supply chain. And the best part is that this will actually be revenue positive, which we can use on AT and/or Transit in order to further improve travel options for those wishing to mode shift (and avoid the congestion charge).
Both of these are ultra low cost interventions, are easily reversible, make more efficient use of existing infrastructure investments, and achieve the goal of improving our trade routes.
We can grow our economy, while making our City richer, without spending much money. But even if we are hell-bent on spending money, we should spend it on things other than road expansions:
- Transit: A study by the Canadian Urban Transit Association showed the economic return of each $1 spent on public transportation was nearly triple that of money spent on road expansions. And a study by the American Public Transportation Association showed similar results.
- Pedestrian and Cycling Program: A 2012 study of over 50 U.S. cities reported a return on investment of nearly 10 times that of road expansion projects. And that same study estimated that twice as many jobs are created with active transportation projects as opposed to road expansion projects.
If we’re deciding based on math, then spending $1 Billion on more road expansions is an unqualified loser. But if we’re deciding based on a flashy sales pitch, then I guess road expansions will win because none of the other options has as well-financed a lobby group advocating for it.
And that becomes abundantly clear when we see that the Mayor has contributed his own article to the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association’s advertising insert, on page 3 no less!
Think about that for a second… the Mayor of the City has written an article extolling the virtues of road expansions in economic development for a lobbyist’s publication aimed at swaying the public to put pressure on their elected officials to spend more money on road expansions. Meaning the Mayor is effectively… lobbying himself?
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that there is any impropriety at play. Nor am I suggesting that Chris Lorenc is an evil man working for an evil organization.
What I am suggesting, is that Chris Lorenc is very, very good at his job.
The MHCA has told us that road expansions are synonymous with economic growth, and we’ve bought it hook line and sinker, going as far as allocating over 90% of our economic strategy dollars to it. No questions asked.
But don’t the MHCA’s members also build active transportation infrastructure? Don’t worry, they’ve thought of that:
“Our industry supports smart investment in multi-modal transportation.— MHCA Advertising Insert to the April 15, 2023 Winnipeg Free Press, page 6.
That’s why the MHCA has encouraged the City of Winnipeg to adopt a stand-alone funding strategy dedicated to active transportation routes.”
The MHCA advocating for a stand-alone funding strategy may sound great to active transportation advocates. But don’t forget why they’re doing this: for money. A stand-alone funding strategy means they get to build both roads AND active transportation without worrying about cannibalizing either revenue stream.
It’s not about what’s best for Winnipeg. It’s about making their members more money. Again, that doesn’t make them evil. It just makes them good at maximizing government spending for their industry. Which is their job.
The math shows that expanding roads does not make our city more economically prosperous. It’s not real… it’s a sales pitch.
When a company is good at selling, they create an affinity for their brand by linking values we care about with their product.
That’s how some people end up only buying Apple products for example, even if they’re often more expensive, and even if they don’t necessarily meet their needs.
When it comes to economic policy, we’ve been duped into only buying road expansions. Even if they’re more expensive. And even if they don’t actually meet our needs.
But it’s time to see past the sales pitch, and do the math. It’s time to do better.