They said, fix them

It certainly feels more and more like the Doer government is gearing up for an election. Maybe even sooner than anticipated. Perhaps the spring rather than the fall of 2007.

Just a few weeks ago, I commented on this page that opening up the government’s purse strings is an age-old signal of an impending election. And, that was only when the province had announced $29 million extra for its highway budget. Now, the province has upped the ante, committing another $300 million in capital and highway maintenance over the next two budget years.

The new commitments by the province will increase annual highway investments to nearly $400 million a year and a projected $2 billion over the next five years, according to the Manitoba government.

“I’ve seen first-hand the challenges that Manitoba’s extreme weather poses to our roads,” said Premier Gary Doer in a fit of revelation, seemingly noticing for the first time what had been quite apparent to Manitoba motorists for years.

“Manitobans say fix them. I agree and we will be doing this building on the investments we’ve made so far into our transportation infrastructure.”

But the premier’s recent revelation is not confined to the bone-jarring roads outside the Perimeter Highway. His new insight into the woes of this province’s roads expanded to also encompass the pothole-filled streets of Winnipeg.

Doer announced earlier this week that the city will be receiving an additional $50 million in provincial funding over the next two years for road-improvement projects. The new money is intended for regional streets, something that the province rarely funds within the border of the Perimeter Highway. For years, the city has been struggling on its own to maintain these major arteries leading into and out of the city.

Doer said the provincial government now recognizes that regional streets within Winnipeg carry 80 per cent of the city’s traffic “and are the economic routes going through Winnipeg.”

Now that’s a revelation.

“This is an unprecedented level of funding that starts to address the priorities of Winnipeggers,” said a grateful Mayor Sam Katz, who is involved in his own campaign to woo the hearts and minds of Winnipeggers.

The Winnipeg mayor earlier announced that city council will be spending 110 per cent more for road maintenance in 2006, primarily for regional streets. The federal government’s contribution of $13 million to the city’s coffers this year, allowed for a $27-million road budget.

Katz at the time said it was the first time in recent years that the city was targeting high-traffic regional routes rather than just focusing on ward-by-ward allocations weighted toward residential streets.

Yet, the mayor also admitted that the more hefty budget still falls well short of addressing the estimated $70-million annual infrastructure deficit. And, what the province has handed over to the city recently only appears to be a drop in the proverbial bucket.

“For example,” said the mayor prior to the province’s recently-announced funding splurge, “while the regional roads budget is over four times larger in 2006 than in 2005, it’s still not enough to reverse decades of neglect. For regional roads alone, we’ll finish the year spending about $27 million when we should be spending 20 per cent more, or $32 million, to get ahead of natural deterioration ... we only dented the infrastructure deficit in 2006, and we need more resources to defeat.”

He got his wish. The province has kicked in more and he has expressed his gratitude. It’s definitely a start, yet there is so much to be done. 

Premier Gary Doer has said he is well aware that motorists shaking, rattling and rolling along Manitoba’s roadways aren’t happy voters and that’s why his government made the two announcements. 

To come up with the extra funding, the government is projecting that it will have to dip into the province’s rainy day fund. A danger, but perhaps politically viable if the government proves that  Manitobans are getting a bang for their  buck and see some tangible results such as a smoother ride when driving down the highway. 

But, what ever happened to the over $1 billion in extra revenue that the province has realized since 1999?

The province’s most tooth-rattling rollercoaster ride — Hwy. 75 — has been singled out by the government for attention, though only a stretch from Letellier to Winnipeg with work starting in 2007 on the northbound lanes of that section of highway.

Other bumpety-bump roads mentioned in the provincial government’s press release are highways 1, 59, 16 and 9. 

The Manitoba Heavy Construction Association said the provincial highway debt has risen from $1.8 billion when the Doer government took power to around $4 billion today. The association is of the opinion that the annual highway construction budget should be increased by at least $350 million for 10 years in keeping with the government’s own 2020 — Manitoba Transport Vision Report. 

While this province’s extreme climate has dire consequences for Manitoba’s roads, deterioration doesn’t occur in the space of one year — it takes years of neglect. And to be fair to the government, the deterioration hasn’t just happened during their watch, previous governments have to share the failure.

Recent polls indicate infrastructure is a top concern of Manitoba voters, which is why the premier said he has heard the message and is acting.

The premier mentioned in the same press release that Manitobans are also  telling him not to just focus on roads at the expense of hospitals, schools and universities. Doer said he has no intention of letting them also deteriorate. In fact, the premier said the province now has “modern facilities in our health-care and education systems.” According to him, before the NDP’s rise to power in 1999, the neglect was so extreme that there were “fruit flies in our hospital operating rooms.”

The rhetoric is definitely heating up and that’s a sure sign the government is gearing up for an election.