WINNIPEG, MAN. – With an election looming, the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association (MHCA) is launching an advocacy campaign to press political candidates to pay attention to the devastating state of provincial roads.
MHCA president Chris Lorenc says the organization is hoping that politicians and office holders will put provincial infrastructure at the top of their to-do list with good asset-management plans and budgeting.
“In Manitoba, almost 50 per cent of the highways are beyond their best-before date and the deficit facing the province for its catalogue of bridges, structures and highways ranges in the vicinity of $9 to $11 billion,” he said.
“The state of our highways is a reflection of the absence of political will. It’s really as simple as that. It’s not rocket science to manage an asset but if you don’t have political will in support of a predictable, sustainable, incremental, strategic, purpose-driven budget, you’re going to have what you have.”
Lorenc has been outspoken about the condition of provincial roads, particularly Highway 75, and recently had a letter published in the Winnipeg Free Press, which stated that almost half of the highways are more than 50 years old, and in need of fixing, and bridges are in equally appealing condition.
His complaint is that the province is not spending enough money on its roads and bridges. In 2015-16, for example, the expenditure was $628 million but in 2019 the budget is $350 million, the same as in 2018.
Lorenc figures that, as a conservative estimate, the highways budget should be at least $500 million per year.
“The challenge to the three party leaders will be to publicly commit to what they are prepared to undertake should they be elected premier of the province.”
Lorenc said it was difficult to get governments to spend on roads, but for a 10-year period starting in 2006 government saw the merit of strategically investing in transportation systems as a way to grow the economy because the same- or next-year return for every dollar invested ranges from $1.30 to $1.60.
Now, however, the situation has changed.
“We have seen the exact opposite,” said Lorenc. “They have cut the budget by 40 per cent. They have further underspent it by 15 per cent, they’ve walked away from longstanding funding agreements with the City of Winnipeg, and they are refusing to negotiate a new long-term funding agreement with the city.”
“So, when you add it all up they’ve probably cut the infrastructure budget by around $800- to $900-million since being elected.”
Meanwhile, said Lorenc, the federal Parliamentary Budget Office concludes that Manitoba has the worst reputation for substituting federal program dollars instead of using provincial dollars.
“We understand the need for fiscal balance and fiscal reform for balancing the books but you can not cut your way to prosperity. You need to balance making efficiency and cost-cutting decisions alongside investment decisions and they just don’t.”
Lorenc said the provincial proposal is to keep the roads budget at $350 for the next five years which is “unacceptable to any sound-thinking Manitoban.”
According to Lorenc, the province needs to ensure its programs are principle-driven and should determine the size of its budget based on engineering advice that is consistent with sound asset management strategies.
The MHCA is recommending that the roads program be permanent and not ad hoc, it should focus on investing money to grow the economy and embrace innovation from every aspect from design to financing to construction to rehabilitation.
The MHCA also suggests the province partner with the private sector to find ingenuity and efficiency, assign a series of revenue streams to support programs, and review them annually and transparently to ensure the public that there is a sense of purpose.
“Those principles will enable the government to decide the appropriate level of budget,” he said.
According to Lorenc, the importance of good roads and bridges in Manitoba can not be understated, as the province depends on reliable transportation systems to transport goods in and out.
“Like our trucking friends say, ‘If you bought it at the store, it was trucked to the store.’ Everything at the end of the day has to move on roads.”
Lorenc said the MHCA will present political candidates with a basket of questions, asking what role infrastructure investment will play in their economic growth plan, should they form government. To drum up interest, the association will be co-ordinating messaging with a number of other business groups.
The MHCA will also be running billboard and radio ads in partnership with Merit Contractors, and submitting opinion editorials in newspapers, and posting daily via Twitter.
The MHCA has posted a statement on its website, outlining plans for the campaign. According to the organization, the advocacy aims to ensure all parties and all candidates for provincial office understand the critical role that core infrastructure and strategic investment in such infrastructure play in the economy.