Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance
Portage & Maintenance

Portage & Maintenance

Dear Winnipeg,

Oddly enough, despite Portage & Main being the main issue that pushed me to start Dear Winnipeg, I have never actually written a single letter about it.

Until today. Sort of.

First, a quick refresher!

In October 2018, our city voted on whether we thought pedestrians should be able to cross the street at Portage & Main, an intersection in the heart of our downtown which had been barricaded to pedestrians since 1979.

Having already been exposed to the principles that make for financially strong and resilient cities for a few years before that, to me, the issue was a no-brainer: of course pedestrians should be able to cross the street there! That’s the bare minimum. Not only should they be able to cross the street, but they should be prioritized over the movement of vehicles in a multitude of other ways.

If you’ve been reading here for any amount of time, the reason why is obvious to you. You need to prioritize what you want. And if what you want is a thriving downtown, then you need to prioritize the people that are there rather than those that are trying to leave.

If you’ve ever been to IKEA, you know that they’ve taken that concept to the extreme: their showrooms seem designed to actually prevent you from leaving. They’re a literal maze. They do this because they know the longer you spend there, the more likely you are to buy something else. Keeping you there is good for business. Making sure you can leave quickly is not.

It’s the same for downtown. Or any neighbourhood, really. If your focus is always on making sure people can leave as quickly as possible, you shouldn’t be surprised when most people just want to leave.

But despite the herculean efforts of a grassroots group of local heroes to educate the public ahead of the vote, ultimately, it was not enough. Two-thirds of Winnipeggers voted to deny people the ability to cross the street in the heart of our downtown.

The result was heartbreaking to many, especially when the results were broken down geographically in what is now an infamous map originally published by CBC News.

But I’ll get back to the map.

Fast forward to now, and the Mayor has announced that the City intends to permanently close the underground concourse at Portage & Main, and open up the surface-level crossing to pedestrians.

So why now? Have 16% of Winnipeggers finally come over to the Yes side, tilting the political balance? It’s hard to tell. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Because this sudden shift isn’t about pedestrians at Portage & Main.

It’s about financial decline and infrastructure failure.

Tell me if you see the common point between these three items:

After an inspection deemed it unsafe to continue using, the Arlington Bridge was closed indefinitely. There is no money to make the necessary repairs, and closing it is the cheaper option.

The current budget proposes to decommission the Eldon Ross, Windsor Park and Happyland outdoor pools, as well as 20 other wading pools. The Eldon Ross pool by itself needs $10 million in repairs. There is no money to make the necessary repairs, and closing the pools is the cheaper option.

The waterproof membrane in the intersection at Portage & Main is at the end of its service life, so water gets into the underground concourse every time there is a heavy rainfall. Replacing it would cost a minimum of $73 million. There is no money to make the necessary repairs, and closing it is the cheaper option.

So yeah, doing the right thing by opening Portage & Main to pedestrian crossings now is just a fluke. The decision is actually about abandoning infrastructure we can’t afford to maintain. Just like with the pools. Just like with the Arlington Bridge.

Like the Mayor recently said:

“The service life of the membrane that protects the underpass is 40 years, which means it would all have to be replaced again. It’s not a one-time cost. And when you calculate the construction-related inflation on $73 million, that gets you up to $200-plus million 30-40 years from now. I don’t think future generations would appreciate that decision. I think it’s time to make the common-sense decision.”

— Mayor Gillingham, CBC News, March 7, 2024

The Mayor is completely right here: infrastructure maintenance is like a zombie debt that never dies. Every time you do it, it just resets the clock on having to do it again.

And unfortunately, the City is at a financial crossroads where we’re no longer choosing our own path. The infrastructure is choosing for us.

Not even a month ago, the entire southwest quadrant of the city was asked to limit their water usage due to a sewer pipe failure that ended up dumping hundreds of millions of liters of raw sewage into the Red River.

With a proper maintenance and replacement schedule, this should never happen. But we’ve been syphoning hundreds of millions of dollars from the water and sewer utility over the years in a desperate shell game to keep everything going.

Our rainy day fund has only $15.7 million left in it at the end of 2023, much below the $78 million target minimum. But the only reason it even has that much is that we transferred $15 million into it last year from the water & sewer reserve.

You can only keep this up for so long before the infrastructure forces your hand and says, no more!

But even if we started making all the right decisions today, things are going to get worse before they get better. There are decades of bad financial decisions that have yet to work their way through the system. And so we will be forced to face more service cuts, more tax increases, and more infrastructure to be abandoned.

It’s clear we can’t rely on Council alone to be strategic in its infrastructure decisions, because while they seem to understand the recurring nature of the maintenance cycle of infrastructure at the time of maintenance, that logic doesn’t carry through to new construction.

On page 13 of the very same budget that proposes to close two dozen pools we can’t afford to maintain, that doesn’t include any money to repair the Arlington Bridge (or the 114 year-old Louise Bridge for that matter), you can also read the Mayor’s commitment to redirecting funds dedicated to road maintenance to expanding Kenaston Blvd and extending Chief Peguis Trail, should money from the Province or the Feds ever materialize.

To even contemplate building anything new, especially projects measured in the Billions of dollars, at a time when we can’t even manage to scrape together $10 million to repair a pool is sheer insanity. And to do it with maintenance money is even worse.

When you can’t afford to maintain the infrastructure you have, you stop building more.

Because, to paraphrase the Mayor, it will all have to be replaced again. It’s not a one-time cost. I don’t think future generations would appreciate that decision. I think it’s time to make the common-sense decision.

But we are not powerless to change things for the better. Back to that map of the Portage & Main vote.

Where many saw despair in this map, I saw hope.

You see, inspired by the brilliant work of the local heroes of the Vote Open campaign in 2018, my wife and I not only donated money to their cause, we bought the T-shirts, and we even volunteered to deliver some flyers in our own neighbourhood.

Life being what it is, what with kids, work and our various volunteer commitments in the neighbourhood, we weren’t able to deliver flyers to every house. But the map showed that the areas we delivered flyers to were a noticeably lighter shade of red than the surrounding areas.

We made a difference.

And having now met some of the luminaries that led the Vote Open campaign, I can now state with confidence that many of the green neighbourhoods are the ones where they live, where they delivered flyers, where they talked to, and banded with, their neighbours.

They made a difference.

Looking back, the map wasn’t showing a divide between suburban and inner city, or left and right, or however else you want to characterize it. It was showing a divide between neighbourhoods who had someone take action and neighbourhoods who weren’t so lucky.

So if you see the issues in our community and are ready to be one of those people for your neighbourhood (or if you already are one!), there’s some exciting news for you!

The Winnipeg Strong Towns Local Conversation Group and Reimagine Elmwood are hosting “Mobilizing Our Community to Build a Stronger Winnipeg” at 180 Poplar Ave on Tuesday, March 26th, 2024. Doors open at 6:30pm and a presentation by Norm Van Eeden Petersman, Director of Membership & Development at Strong Towns, will start at 7:00pm. Admission is FREE.

You want your community to change. You also want these changes to be received well by others. You want them to share a vision of what’s possible with you and take steps to accomplish that vision together.

Come meet others who feel the same way. I hope to see you there!


Elmwood Guy