Dear Winnipeg

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The Kenaston Widening Is Dead, Long Live the Kenaston Widening!

The Kenaston Widening Is Dead, Long Live the Kenaston Widening!

Dear Winnipeg,

I’ve been prepping my A-game ever since the Mayor campaigned on a pledge to widen Kenaston, as long as a business case supported it. “This is not road-building for road-building’s sake”, he said in 2022. Since then, I’ve been looking forward to tearing apart all of the assumptions and arguments that would be used to try to justify such an unnecessary, and quite frankly, financially reckless, project.

But now that the Benefit-Cost Analysis for the widening of Kenaston is finally here, it turns out they’ve thrown me a real softball. And it’s not even my birthday!

The report calculates that widening Kenaston to three lanes in each direction would provide a net present value of $20.5 million in benefits over the next 30 years, for a Benefit-Cost Ratio of 1.17.

But, as the report indicates, that’s excluding admin and contingency costs. When you include those, the widening has a net present value of negative $1.9 million, or a Benefit-Cost Ratio of less than 1.

So that’s it. This expansion project is an unqualified loser and we shouldn’t proceed with it. The End.


Elmwood Guy

P.S. If only it were so easy. For some reason, road expansion projects are notoriously hard to kill. Like the Energizer Bunny, they just keep going and going and going, long after they’ve been shown to be a complete failure based on the City’s own criteria.

So, despite the fact that yet another City report shows that, when all the costs are included, the costs of widening Kenaston outweigh the benefits, you can expect that this will not be the end of it. Get ready for the gaslighting and the moving of the goalposts to begin!

In anticipation of that, I thought to highlight some of the more interesting (and often hilarious) parts of this Benefit-Cost Analysis, to help inspire you in case you want to register to speak at committee, send a written submission, or write to your city councillor. Here are my top five!

1. Temporary savings, permanent costs

Mitigated construction delays account for $57.8 million, or 41%, of the total benefits of the widening. What this means in English is if we widen to three lanes, then traffic can be maintained in two lanes per direction during construction, instead of going to one lane per direction, saving some time to drivers for two construction seasons, in 2028 and 2029.

So, for a cost of nearly a quarter of a billion dollars (when including interest), drivers can temporarily save a bit of time for two seasons. And then, the City will be on the hook for maintenance and replacement of that infrastructure. Forever.

If trading short-term benefits for long-term liabilities sounds like a recipe for financial ruin, it’s because it is.

Even the report acknowledges as much:

“It should be cautioned that a substantial portion (41%) of this project’s benefits is driven by mitigated construction delays in 2028 and 2029. This is only a temporary benefit and if excluded, the benefit-cost ratio falls to 0.69, indicating the long-term benefits are below total costs.”

— Route 90 Improvements Benefit-Cost Analysis, Technical Report, March 2024 (Executive Summary)

So, as per report recommendations, I guess we should subtract those $57.8 million in benefits from our already negative net present value of -$1.9 million.

RUNNING TALLY: negative $59.7 million

2. Safety for everyone! Well, almost.

The safety benefits of the widening are valued at $4.4 million, since the “proposed design includes several interventions expected to impact safety performance” (page 16). Sounds great, until you consider that the analysis was “performed on collision rate estimates for the existing two-lane facility and the proposed three-lane facility” (page 15, emphasis is mine).

So the benefits are in comparison to the current two-lane layout. But since we’re doing a street renewal anyway, we could implement safety interventions into a new two-lane design too (which, by the way, should be standard practice). That means the safety benefits aren’t due to the widening, they’re just due to street renewal, so they really shouldn’t be counted as a benefit of the widening.

And, this is a bit of an aside, but the claim of added safety itself is pretty dubious. Also from page 16: “Some of these interventions are expected to improve safety performance while others may see certain collision types increase. For example, installing cycling infrastructure could result in an increase in cycling collisions” (emphasis mine).

Can you really claim that the new design is safer when you outright admit it’s actually making it more dangerous for certain types of vulnerable road users?

Also, it should go without saying that if adding cycling infrastructure makes it more dangerous for cyclists, you’re doing it wrong.

RUNNING TALLY: negative $64.1 million

3. The environmental benefits of more people driving

The report claims environmental benefits of $12.6 million over the next 25 years due to reduced fuel consumption by drivers. Although “it should be noted that the electrification of Manitoba’s automobile fleet is not considered in this analysis” (page 19). Hilarious, yes, but nevermind that. Even if we take this number at face value, the report reminds us that “physically constructing the improved transportation facility will have an impact on the environment” and that this analysis “does not include the effects of emissions caused by construction of the proposed improvements” (both from page 21). Those uncounted emissions, again according to this report, work out to 28,067 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions (page 21, again). Yikes!

Calculating the cost of those front-end emissions (which we’re able to do since they provided their sources on pages 28 and 29) gives us a total discounted cost of about $11.4 million (in 2021 dollars). Converting to 2023 dollars to match the report means the environmental benefits of the fuel savings are completely wiped out by the environmental costs of constructing the widening. Net environmental benefit, zero (at best, but probably less).

RUNNING TALLY: negative $76.7 million

4. Won’t someone please think of the congestion!

Here’s where we get into the real reason we’re all here: time savings for drivers! According to page 8 of the report, widening Kenaston will reduce average travel times by 0.22 minutes (13 seconds) in 2030, decreasing to 0.18 minutes (11 seconds) by 2050.

It took you longer than that just to read the last paragraph.

Since the report values the average driver’s time at $14.01/hour, that works out to a time savings value of about four cents per trip.

Based on these numbers, we could save a lot of money if we didn’t do the widening, and just compensated drivers for their lost time. Instead of saving them four cents of time per trip by spending $243.7 million of public money on a widening (including interest), we could just give each of the 79,000 daily weekday drivers over the St. James Bridge a nickel every time they cross for the next 30 years. That would only cost $30.8 million, leaving $212.9 million to spend on other things. And drivers would be 25% better off financially.

But wait, wouldn’t paying people to drive here just incentivize them to drive more? Yes, yes it would. That’s induced demand.

And by that same logic, wouldn’t charging people to drive here incentivize them to drive less? Also yes. That’s demand management.

Since we have no issues charging user fees for city services like pools and riding the bus, surely a bridge toll shouldn’t be controversial. Here’s how it could work.

Congestion pricing in other cities has been shown to reduce traffic often by as much as half. This would translate to time savings on Kenaston measured in minutes instead of seconds. Using the report’s figures, a five-minute time savings would be worth $1.17, so charging a $1 toll to drivers so they can save $1.17 would be a good financial deal for them. Additional bonus: the 39,500 vehicles per day that remain would generate over $10 million of revenue per year for the City, which could be used to help fund better alternative transportation options on Kenaston, like transit.

RUNNING TALLY: does it even matter anymore? This widening project clearly sucks.

5. Everything else!

Oh man, this report has so many other things in it worth highlighting. It is so, so juicy, and I just love every part of it. But I only have a limited amount of space to write before you get bored and leave, and I fear we’re nearing that point already. So I’ll just leave you with this:

“To maintain existing levels of service […], bridge and road renewal along with the sewer upgrade components of the Route 90 improvements project will need to be completed in the future. These project components are not considered to be optional investments for the purposes of this study. To do so would be equivalent to considering the abandonment and decommissioning of this segment of Route 90 as a public route entirely, an alternative which is untenable. Thus, the benefits of the existing Route 90 configuration do not need to be quantified, it is only the incremental benefits offered by the proposed improvements that are estimated.”

— page 7, emphasis mine

That this report would put forward, without irony, that considering the abandonment of infrastructure is untenable, all while proposing a negative-returning expansion of infrastructure on the heels of the closure of a rapidly growing list of abandoned infrastructure, is just too funny for words.

Like, can they hear themselves?

Given the contents of the report, it’s really hard to believe that anyone would try to use this as a justification for widening Kenaston, when clearly, it is saying the opposite. But you know they will.

More cynically, as St.Vital Councillor Brian Mayes said in a recent news article, “the cost-benefit [analysis] just seemed to be an exercise in coming up with a positive number.”

That’s why it’s important for you to make your voice heard so we can put this financially irresponsible idea to rest once and for all.

If you’d like to register to speak at the June 11th Public Works meeting (agenda item #8), or if you’d like to submit written comments, you can fill out this form on the City website. You have until 12pm on June 10th, 2024 to do so.

If that’s not your jam, you can also email your councillor and/or the mayor directly. Or write an op-ed. Or call in to a radio show. Or share this post. Or talk to your friends. Or all of the above and more. You can do it!

P.P.S. Almost forgot all that was in a P.S., eh? I’m all done now. See ya next time!