Dear Winnipeg

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The Road Expansion Lobby Doesn’t Want You to Read This

The Road Expansion Lobby Doesn’t Want You to Read This

Dear Winnipeg,

Last Friday, the City released its revised plan to not just reconstruct but also massively expand Route 90 (Kenaston) from Taylor to Ness, a mere six weeks after approving the budget to do so.

I have to say, this design is a hot mess. The project aims to do a lot of different things, most notably widening the road from four lanes to at least six lanes (and as many as eight or nine lanes at some intersections) while adding a third span to the St. James Bridge. I could write a whole piece about just the other stuff, but given that the Mayor has indicated that widening is a non-negotiable part of this project, stressing the fact that adding more lanes must remain part of the project, that’s the part I want to talk about today.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine sent me a link to someone’s presentation at City Hall. That someone was Ken Klassen. I had already met him once before and the guy knows his stuff, but his presentation, and its accompanying slide deck, was something else. In a single presentation, Ken managed to show that every reason for expanding Kenaston being touted by the City was, to put it nicely, a “strategic misrepresentation”. And he did it using the City’s own data.

A screen capture of Ken presenting at City Hall.

Naturally, I got in contact with Ken, and we had a great conversation about this and many other topics. I asked him if he’d allow me to write something based in large part on his presentation, and he graciously accepted.

So, here are the top reasons given for widening Kenaston and adding a third span to the St. James Bridge, and why they are bunk.

MYTH #1: Expanding Kenaston is a good financial deal for the City

“These projects will bring immediate benefits to residents, businesses and our economy.”

— Mayor Scott Gillingham, in the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association’s latest advertising publication, Spring 2023

“[Gillingham] stressed the city must first refine the price tags and complete business case studies to ensure each project would produce a “positive return on investment” for all three levels of government.”

— Gillingham’s Billion-dollar Promise, Winnipeg Free Press, September 12, 2022

The economic benefits claimed for this proposed widening have been trumpeted far and wide, even though few seem to have seen an actual cost-benefit analysis for it. Well, as it turns out, a cost-benefit analysis was produced for the City in April 2012 and revised in 2017. This analysis was not shared with the public, and it was only obtained through a Freedom of Information Request (thanks Ken!).

The analysis showed the widening of Kenaston would provide $125 million in economic benefits over 20 years, or just over $6 million per year. But that was at a time when the projected construction cost was $129 million (in 2009 dollars). Since then, the projected cost has skyrocketed even though the benefits have not:

In case you’re wondering, the Bank of Canada reports that the Consumer Price Index only went up about 20% from 2009 to 2020.

But that’s not all. Those are just the construction costs. When you factor in the financing plus additional operating and maintenance costs for the next 30 years, the total jumps to nearly $1.2 Billion. That’s $38.7 million per year we’ll need to find in our operating budget to pay for this. [Side note: remember the time we struggled to find $50,000 to keep a bathroom open for an extra two hours a day? Yeah, $38.7 million… this should be fun.]

So we’re going to spend $38.7 million/year for 30 years to get about $6 million/year in benefits for 20 years. Even if we isolate the costs to just those that make up the widening, and increase the benefits to adjust for inflation, the gap is so great that this is still going to lose us millions of dollars per year. Is it any wonder the City is going broke?

It gets worse. It turns out we may have maxed out the capacity of our local road-building industry with all of our “record road spending”, driving up costs in the process. The city estimates average construction costs have jumped 25 to 30 per cent since last year, due in no small part to the tight timelines for all the work being done. In order to counter that, the City is now allowing work to carry into the following year. The takeaway: the local road-building industry is unable to complete all $156 million of record road repairs in a single year, and so are increasing their bid prices to compensate. What do you think is going to happen when we add an additional $1.2 Billion mega road and bridge expansion on top of that?

And it gets even worse. In case you think senior levels of government will help us out, you should know the City has already twice failed to secure federal funding, first from the Building Canada Fund in 2015 and then from the National Trades Corridor Fund in 2018. A big reason was the criteria that a project must be revenue-positive in order to qualify. And the Province has not stated its public support for the project, and has rarely ever funded any project unless the Feds were in too. So we’ll be on our own to pay for this.

Just as a reference, in 2017, a year before there was even talk of a plebiscite, the analytics firm State of Place did a study on the economic return of opening Portage and Main to pedestrians. At the time, their findings were that an investment of $7 million in various improvements to the intersection and surrounding blocks would yield economic returns of $126 million over 10 years, an $18 return on every dollar invested. That’s already $1 million better than the $125 million in returns predicted for the Kenaston widening, but at fraction of the cost, and in half the time, making it 345x more economically productive than adding lanes to Kenaston.

But that’s no surprise to anyone who’s done the math. Projects that prioritize walking, putting pedestrians at the top of the transportation pyramid, always outperform those that prioritize driving. And by so much that it’s almost unbelievable. I mean, even if the benefits of opening Portage & Main are overstated by 10x and the benefits of widening Kenaston are understated by 10x, the walking project still beats the driving one by over 240%. Not only should we open Portage & Main instead of widening Kenaston, but we should then do another 80 walking improvement projects throughout the city. They’re just that good for us financially.

MYTH #2: Expanding Kenaston is necessary because it is a key trade corridor for commercial traffic

“Centreport will become more economically productive if we widen Kenaston to accommodate truck traffic.”

— Mayor Scott Gillingham (while campaigning for the job), Gillingham campaign press release, September 12, 2022

Actually, there are several things that make this claim false. First is the fact that the most significant source of large truck traffic, CN’s Intermodal Terminal, was moved from Kenaston & Wilkes to Symington Yards on the other side of the city about two decades ago. Today, trucks account for less than 4% of traffic on the St. James Bridge according to the City’s own traffic analysis, which says that “the majority of existing congestion is caused by the high volume of total traffic along the corridor.”

Couple that with the Province’s plans to spend billions on upgrading the Perimeter Highway to freeway standards, and that number can do nothing but continue to decrease as truck traffic to and from the US on this portion of Route 90 switches to the quickest route to Centre Port.

MYTH #3: Expanding Kenaston will alleviate congestion

“There will be significant improvements for travel time.”

— Vaibhav Banthia (Project Manager at the City of Winnipeg), Winnipeg Free Press, May 6, 2023

The City’s own public engagement boards show that current travel times on this section of Kenaston are around 7 to 8 minutes during peak periods. The City projects that travel times will INCREASE to somewhere between 8.2 and 9.2 minutes by 2041 with the proposed widening, a full 12 years before we’re even done paying for it.

That’s because adding lanes is the most expensive, and the least effective, way to address traffic congestion, due to induced demand consistently undermining our efforts.

As we know, there are much more efficient ways to move people, which are being implemented by every major Canadian city that Winnipeg competes with. Yet none them seem to be on the table here.

People-moving capacity of a single lane by transportation mode at peak conditions with normal operations. (Source: National Association of City Transportation Officials)

MYTH #4: Expanding Kenaston is necessary for fighting climate change

“Cars idling in congestion contribute to GHG emissions… that’s why the free movement of vehicles actually is a net benefit.”

— Loren Remillard, Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, on the need for the Kenaston widening, in a March 22, 2023 address to Council

Page 21 of the City’s 2018 application for federal funds for this widening (discovered through yet another Freedom of Information Request) shows the City didn’t even bother to calculate the potential greenhouse gas impacts of the project, saying only they were “to be determined”.

That didn’t prevent them from claiming, a mere 15 pages later, that the project supports a “longer term reduction in GHG emissions from transportation sources compared to a scenario where the project is not carried out” because of reduced travel times, because it is “part of the City of Winnipeg’s Traffic Management Plan”, and because “Highway 75 is a major transportation corridor to the US.”

Ignoring all the completely nonsensical part of that answer, I agree that we can use projected travel times to approximate greenhouse gas emissions, because in general, the longer the travel time for the same distance, the more idling you are experiencing, the more greenhouse gases are emitted.

Using the projected travel times in the City’s public engagement boards, it would seem that the time savings of widening Kenaston versus not widening it, a difference of about 66 to 90 seconds at most times of the day, would indeed reduce idling, and therefore emissions. But we can’t forget that those marginally faster travel times are happening in 6 lanes instead of 4 (induced demand again!). So even if 6 lanes of vehicles are idling for slightly less time each than 4 lanes, in total, the widened Kenaston would emit 14% more carbon than an unwidened one in 2041, or a whopping 68% more than today. Which makes spending $1.2 Billion in this way totally irresponsible.

MYTH #5: Expanding Kenaston is critical to the success of the Naawi-Oodena development

“For Naawi-Oodena (the southwest land development led by Treaty 1) to be successful, Kenaston Boulevard needs to be widened.”

— Mayor Scott Gillingham (while campaigning for the job), Winnipeg Free Press, October 18th, 2022

The 160 acres that make up the former Kapyong Barracks land belonging to the federal government was split into two portions in 2019. One, making up 32% of the land, was transferred to the Canada Lands Corporation (CLC), an arms-length federal Crown corporation. The other, making up the remaining 68% went to Treaty One Development Corp (T1DC), a development company jointly owned by the seven First Nations who are signatories to the first of the numbered Treaties, in 1871.

If anyone should know whether the widening of Kenaston is necessary to the success of this development, it would be them. I wouldn’t presume to speak for them, and luckily I don’t have to.

CLC hired a consultant in 2018 who ultimately concluded that the City’s plans for Kenaston would “create an urban freeway that doesn’t respond to the character and scale of the existing area that would conflict with the intended future redevelopment of the Kapyong lands.”

As for the T1DC, they’ve published an entire Master Plan for the area that says exactly what they want. In it, we find this:

“Potential Route 90 expansion
Route 90 – both in its current form and proposed future configuration – poses some significant challenges from the perspective of site access, pedestrian and cycling comfort and connectivity, and the creation of a strong urban character along its frontage.”

Looks to me like both CLC and T1DC have made it pretty clear that they feel the success of Naawi-Oodena depends on whatever the opposite of widening is. And from a financial standpoint, we’d actually be better off just writing them a cheque instead of widening Kenaston. Now that’s reconciliation!

CONCLUSION: Is something else going on?

It turns out the reasons we have been given to justify the expansion of Kenaston are either not true or gross exaggerations. That’s not me saying it, that’s the data in the City’s own documents.

So the question remains, why is Council still pushing us full-steam ahead into this road expansion? Why are we preparing to spend $1.2 Billion to worsen congestion, increase greenhouse gas emissions, make the development of Naawi-Oodena more challenging, and make the City significantly poorer in the process?

There has been a disturbing lack of transparency in sharing this information with the public and Council. Much of it has only been discovered through multiple Freedom of Information Requests. That’s very bad, because it means we’re making decisions on this expansion project based on incomplete and/or incorrect information. It also points to potentially much deeper issues within the public service.

The other possibility is that Council in fact does have this information, and has been withholding it from the public in order to build it anyways. This is also very bad. Not to mention that it makes the Mayor’s contribution of an article to the road construction lobby’s latest publication potentially problematic.

I want to make it clear that I’m not making any accusations. I don’t necessarily know the whole situation. What I do know is that the City has information that shows that this massive expansion of car-centric infrastructure is unsustainable from both an economic and environmental perspective. And yet, the project is being pushed through anyways, in defiance of the data, taking the public for fools to the tune of over $1 Billion. So it’s certainly legitimate to ask ourselves whether this project could end up having some future Mayor and Council requesting a public inquiry.

So contact your Councillor. Then contact the Mayor. Because you, dear readers, have known for a while that expanding Route 90 would be the largest mistake of our generation. But it turns out the City knew it all along too. Only now, we know they know.


Elmwood Guy