The price Winnipeg pays for subsidizing new roads

It’s not news to residents of central Winnipeg that our streets are in terrible shape, but it would be interesting to know just how bad the situation is overall. The Winnipeg Sun answered that question recently. The paper reported that, by the city’s own reckoning, more than 20 per cent of our streets are rated in poor condition, the lowest rating, meaning that the street must be completely rebuilt, or at least undergo major rehabilitation.

Wayne Glowacki, Winnipeg Free Press

A few days later, the Winnipeg Free Press picked up the story and added some figures to show that the roads are continually getting worse and that the city isn’t anywhere near having the resources it needs to repair the streets quickly enough to keep pace with their deterioration.

Instead, the city has, in effect, given up on attempts to solve the problem. A public works official admitted to the Sun that the city’s priorities are shifting away from streets in poor condition to those that have not yet reached that state, on the premise that it is better to maintain what is viable than to salvage what is not. Since the streets in worst condition tend to be those in the poorest neighbourhoods, the neglect of downtown streets is tantamount to the ghettoization and decay so distressingly familiar in American cities.

Although it is claimed the city can’t afford to fix the old roads, there is always money available for new roads. And that is the nub of the problem. The city is spending so much money building and paving roads in the periphery that it can’t afford to maintain roads in older neighbourhoods. If Winnipeg hopes to accommodate its growing population without continually worsening its infrastructure deficit, it must do so, at least in part, by development within the the city, rather than at the periphery.

The reason fringe development worsens the infrastructure deficit is that the developers of new neighbourhoods are not being charged enough to cover the real costs to the city incurred by their developments. Part of the solution to the infrastructure deficit, therefore, is to raise development charges for new developments to the point where they are paying the bills incurred by these developments. Raising development charges to a sustainable level will reduce the incentive for sprawl development and correspondingly increase the incentive for development within the city.

A balance between edge-city and centre-city development that reflects the city’s real costs would not only be socially more just and financially more justifiable, it would make some money available to fix those roads.

8 responses to “The price Winnipeg pays for subsidizing new roads

  1. I believe in the US it is refered to as the Donut syndrome, where cities are hollow in the middle. I challenged this practice for years on my radio program.

    As we saw last week, almost all the suburban councillors (and inexplicably Coun Steen) decided to continue the practice of oppressing the inner city, in this case by hiking bus fares using a most undemocratic process. Part of the solution is for people in the inner city to consider drastic measures to stand up to the anti public consultation, anti inner city crowd.

  2. I am looking for information about exactly how much the developers of new neighbourhoods are paying towards new roads they develop. I notice you mention it is not enough, if possible some details would be appreciated.

    Thanks, great post!

    • The last time I researched this question, some years ago, I learned that the city and the developer negotiate over the conditions attached to a development permit. Typically, the city’s position is that the developer must instal or pay for the roads as well as the water and sewer lines the subdivision requires, and that she must donate 10 per cent of the land or its equivalent as a park allowance. After that, the city is obligated to serve the subdivision as it does the rest of the city: fire and police protection, public transportation, weed and mosquito control, street cleaning, snow ploughing, and more.

      All of these services, as well as others, cost more per household to deliver to the typically single-family, large-lot homes at the city’s fringe than to the higher-density neighbourhoods near the centre. In other words, people living at the fringe pay the same prices as those downtown for significantly more expensive services, and the more the city spreads, the worse the disparity gets. To make matters still worse, the more affluent person who usually lives near the edge has more political clout than the typical downtown resident. When there’s a pothole to be fixed, or the cops are called, guess who’s more likely to get priority? Your likely answer to that question is not the result of anyone’s ill will. It’s what automatically happens when poor people live in one area and the wealthy in another.

      As Winnipeg taxpayers, we pay, in addition, for services to subdivisions that do not contribute to the city’s coffers. To take one of many examples, there is the excellent, well-maintained southwestern portion of McGillivary Boulevard that runs across many hectares of farmland from Whyte Ridge to the perimeter. Primarily it serves the residents of Oak Bluff, many or most of whom undoubtedly shop and work in the city, but whose taxes are paid to the the Rural Municipality of Macdonald.

      I’d like to answer your question with exact figures, but that would require a study I don’t have time to do. However, from an explanation of how the system works it’s easy to see why downtown streets look like something from a Subaru Forester commercial, while, in the suburbs and beyond, we drive like the man in the Acura.

  3. Although I completely agree with the opinions shared here, as a truck driver I’ll share another perspective. Winnipeg has very few through truck routes that don’t (at least partially) go through residential neighbourhoods. Trucks likely wear out roads more than all other traffic combined so it makes sense to start with an investment on projects like the Chief Peguis expansion. That way when an investment is made on repairing residential streets (I’m thinking of Springfield Road particularly), less semis will be on these roads and the repairs wil last a lot longer.

    • The more fundamental issue is that the city routinely approves developers’ plans for new neighbourhoods, without considering the welfare of the city as a whole. As a result, the city expands outward at lower and lower densities, and “leap-frogs” over empty fields, with the taxpayer footing the bill for extending all the city’s services over vast areas. That’s why we have so many roads to fix in the first place.

      The city and the provincial governments have the undisputed authority to say No to development proposals, or to require development proposals to be revised, so that they don’t gobble up land and the city’s resources so recklessly, but apparently our representatives at city hall and in the legislature find it easier to be friendly to developers than to do what’s best for the city and the province as a whole.

      • Derek Lambert

        I completely agree but the neighbourhoods that are already there aren’t going anywhere and are where most of the voting public lives.

        I honestly think user fees (including roads) for and privatizing most city services are the best way to explain to the public how wasteful we are and only the direct hit to the wallet will change lifestyles.

      • I could live with that – it would certainly be a lot better than what we have now. I do also see a problem with it. It would allow the super-rich to buy any city they want, and in my ideal world, the shape of our cities would be determined more democratically.

  4. Pingback: Pity the city planners: They have to invent rationalisations for bad decisions | Christopher Leo

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