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One more load: Rough ride in Manitoba

Manitoba cannot afford to freeze its highways capital budgets at $350 million

July 18, 2019  By Chris Lorenc

Driving into Manitoba any time soon? Get the shocks ready.

Manitoba’s highways are on a rough ride, suffering from years of neglect now being compounded by severe cuts to Manitoba Infrastructure’s highways capital budget.

The heavy construction industry is alarmed by the lack of attention to a critical piece of the provincial economy – our province relies heavily on trade, which generates fully half of the GDP. It is an incontrovertible fact that trade’s potential for growth rides on transportation infrastructure. Let it crumble and economic growth is impaired.

In 2015-16, the province’s Highways Capital expenditure was $628.4 million. This year, the province budgeted for $350 million – the same level as 2018-19. That’s a 44-per-cent cut.


We understood in 2016, when the provincial election put the Progressive Conservatives in power, that Manitoba’s deficit had to be cut, it was the priority. But Manitobans were told the highways capital budget would fall to no less than $500 million annually.

To underscore the damage these cuts are exacting, consider this: Manitoba’s highways and bridges need some $9 billion in construction and repair. At the current level of investment, the province is actually adding $100 million to that tab every year.

Further, Manitoba is not taking full advantage of the federal cost-shared dollars available for core infrastructure. The Parliamentary Budget Office’s March 2019 report identified Manitoba as the worst jurisdiction in Canada for using federal dollars to supplant its own planned capital expenditures.

There is a definable economic cost to this. Most immediately, the combined effect of budget cuts and annual under-expenditure has meant $100 million in lost wages to our employees. Our industry is reeling; contractors are selling off assets to make the business plan work.

On a broader public interest level, roads are decaying. It costs up to 10 times more to rebuild as to maintain a road; letting the transportation system crumble merely loads liability on future generations.

Infrastructure’s critical role in our economy is reflected in multiple economic reports: strategic infrastructure investment boosts the GDP between $1.30 and $1.60 for every $1 of investment – in the same year.

Given the verified link between infrastructure, trade and the economy, it should be widely accepted that slashing highways investment is the wrong thing to do when the focus, now, must be on growing the economy. Manitoba cannot afford to freeze its highways capital budgets at $350 million.

Manitoba Heavy Construction Association’s message as we enter a provincial election campaign leading to a September call to the polls – a month prior to the federal election – is simple: You can’t cut your way to prosperity.

It’s being echoed by leading Manitoba business organizations that recognize the economic implications of depressed infrastructure investment.

Now the provincial deficit is well under control and fiscal balance is within reach, it is time to focus on investments in support of economic growth.

And next to the economy itself, strategic infrastructure investment is the priority because without a strong, efficient and reliable trade transportation system, there is no economy.

And no politician has ever run on a platform of “I promise if elected to neglect your infrastructure, your highways, your streets.”

It is perverse that our highways budget – foundational to economic potential – is a political football tossed about on the campaign trail every three or four years.

It’s time to divorce infrastructure investment from the political expediencies of election cycles. It is time the new provincial government crafted a long-term, predictable, sustainable and incremental strategic infrastructure investment strategy to propel economic growth.

Chris Lorenc is the president of the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association.

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