Why can’t Winnipeg get rid of its pothole problem? It can’t afford to fix its roads, experts say

Extreme weather and old roads aren’t helping Winnipeg’s perennial pothole problem — but what’s really driving it is a city that continues to build new streets when it can’t afford to maintain the ones it already has, some experts and advocates say.

“The city has a large volume of infrastructure that’s in various states of disrepair. A lot of it’s at the end of its life cycle,” said Niall Harney, the Errol Black chair in labour issues at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

“But generally, we don’t have budgets that are large enough to maintain that infrastructure. So a lot of it is left to really crumble over time.”

In 2018, the city said its infrastructure deficit — the gap between the money it needs to fix or replace things like roads and the money it expects to actually have for that work — would total $6.9 billion over the next decade.

That means Winnipeg is a city that owns “more pavement than we are capable of paying for,” something made clear by each pothole that appears come spring, said Michel Durand-Wood, an advocate who writes about municipal finance and infrastructure issues.

He also contributed to Anatomy of a Pothole, a project that aimed to highlight infrastructure issues ahead of last fall’s civic election.

The issue is something he said the city’s residents should consider during conversations about capital projects like widening Kenaston Boulevard and extending Chief Peguis Trail.

Early cost estimates for those projects peg them at more than $500 million each.

A man in a toque and parka smiles outside in winter.
Michel Durand-Wood writes about municipal finance and infrastructure issues in Winnipeg. He says the city has more roads than it can afford to maintain, which is part of why there are so many potholes. (Submitted by Michel Durand-Wood)

“If we are not even close to being able to maintain the roads that we already have, is it a good idea to spend a billion dollars to continue to expand that?” Durand-Wood said.

“When you’re in a hole, you should stop digging, right?”

Old roads, lack of resources

But an inability to keep up with road maintenance isn’t the only culprit behind Winnipeg’s pockmarked roads. 

The city’s long winters, repeated freeze-thaw cycles and flat terrain that makes it harder for water to drain all play a role too, said Ahmed Shalaby, a University of Manitoba engineering professor who specializes in pavement design and highway materials.

As well, a late spring like this year’s doesn’t just mean a late start to pothole season, Shalaby said. It also means summer construction season could be delayed and shortened, leading to fewer road repairs being done.

A man in a suit speaks to someone off-camera.
A late start to spring this year in Winnipeg also means a late start to pothole season, says University of Manitoba engineering professor Ahmed Shalaby. (CBC)

A City of Winnipeg spokesperson said in an emailed statement Friday that crews are currently out making patches using an asphalt mix specifically designed for use in cold, wet weather — but that’s only a temporary fix.

From January through end of March this year, city crews filled a total of 19,223 potholes, compared to 14,731 for the same period last year, said Julie Horbal Dooley, a spokesperson with the city’s public works department. Conditions last year meant most of that work was done in March.

Though the month is only half over, this April seems to be off to a slower start for pothole repairs. Nearly 36,000 were filled last April, but so far this month, the number is just 2,384, Horbal Dooley’s email said.

Beyond the weather challenges, there’s also the fact that many of Winnipeg’s roads were built between 40 and 60 years ago — and since older roads are more susceptible to cracks, that means more chances of potholes appearing, Shalaby said.

Winnipeg also suffers from a lack of access to the kind of high-quality natural resources needed to build roads that will last, he said. 

The city’s streets can be built using things like limestone from Stonewall, gravel from the Birds Hill Provincial Park area and recycled materials that have been re-crushed and processed from existing roads. But once those are depleted, “we have to go further and further in order to find the type of stones and aggregates [we need] to use to build our roads,” Shalaby said.

“Whether it’s the Canadian Shield or northern Manitoba … given the large quantities that are required for road building and for construction in general, it becomes a lot more expensive to haul these a longer distance and bring them all the way to Winnipeg,” he said.

Shifting gears

Using those kinds of high-quality materials is important in building roads that will last a long time, which saves money in the long term — but it also costs money to make that happen, Shalaby said.

“This all goes back to the life cycle of that infrastructure and seeing the value in building infrastructure that lasts longer, because that’s how we free up some of the money to do other things that we all want to do,” he said.

A white vehicle's front-right tire drives through a hole.
Using high-quality materials is important in building roads that will last a long time, which saves money in the long term — but it also costs money to make that happen, Shalaby says. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Winnipeg has started addressing its revenue problem by raising property taxes after they were frozen for years.

The city’s latest budget calls for $156 million in spending on road repairs, down $9 million from record road renewal spending in 2022. However, more of the city’s own money is now being devoted to roads, after a joint federal-provincial funding program ended.

In 2013, the city started dedicating a set percentage of property taxes to road renewal following “many years of funding challenges” that left many roads in poor condition, and more susceptible to the freeze-thaw cycle, Horbal Dooley said.

The city “has only recently begun its record investments in road renewals,” she said. “We’re just now catching up.”

Harney said in spite of the increased spending, the city will still need to address its planning problem by prioritizing infill development within the city instead of building new infrastructure around its edges.

“This is a mindset that many cities are struggling to shift.”

But he said in a smaller city like Winnipeg, which lacks the rapid economic growth of somewhere like Vancouver or Toronto, “we need to be making sure that we’re making maximum use of the infrastructure that we have so that we are sustainably maintaining it.”

View original article here Source