Winnipeg’s Perimeter Highway: Death by Design

Fortunately for people, if not pigs, the only deaths from a recent accident on Winnipeg’s Perimeter Highway were the contents of the semi-trailer that flipped on a cloverleaf. But the comment of a policeman on the scene – “We’re dealing with a design from 30 or 40 years ago.” – points to a wider problem. Our ring road is poorly thought out and in need of massive attention to bring it up to acceptable freeway standards – meaning a roadway with exclusively high-speed access and egress. Last year, one resident close to the site of a fatal crash accurately labeled it the “Disaster Highway.”

A new Frontier backgrounder combines those descriptions. It describes why the roadway is dangerous and a “Disaster by Design”: “Along its 90-kilometre length, there are approximately 70 opportunities for cross traffic to be hit by trucks and cars traveling at highway speeds. The crossings may be signalized intersections or gravel roads. But the simple fact is that many of its fatalities simply would not have occurred had the road been designed to the highway standards that apply everywhere in the high-income world except Winnipeg. Recent U.S. data shows that freeways produce half the fatality rates of other highways.”

This sweeping indictment of the roadway, written by Senior Fellow Wendell Cox, entails much more than a faulty ramp or even the Perimeter’s most dangerous, untwinned section on the east side, responsible for many deaths over the last few years. It connects the problem to an all-too-prevalent bias in urban planning circles against automobiles and freeways.

Cox explains how Winnipeg’s lack of freeways significantly detracts from the city’s economic progress and efficiency. We suffer from yet another embarrassing distinction, as the only urban area of its size in the developed world without true freeways. Even smaller cities in developing countries, like Monterrey, Mexico, have them.

Why has the world embraced freeways? “Throughout Canada, the United States, Western Europe and Japan, low-density suburban development has been pervasive in recent decades. The existence or extent of freeways is not the determining factor. It is rather that the automobile empowers people by bringing more jobs and lower-priced shopping within easy access. This, of course, means more economic growth and higher income for virtually all households, especially low-income households.”

So we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by refusing to build safe, high-speed arteries for automobiles. People need to move efficiently and conveniently to wherever employment and commercial opportunities exist, not just to the necessarily limited choices available in the central city. In this report, Cox also presents data showing that freeways improve safety while reducing traffic congestion and air pollution.

To our detriment, no such thoughts form any part of Plan Winnipeg. Does anyone recall the project a generation ago called the “Inner Perimeter”? The needed beltway would have paralleled the Perimeter Highway, about halfway between it and the core area. A foolish bias against cars derailed it, even after whole sections were constructed in different parts of the city, like our bicycle path network – its parts never connected and never allowed to realize their true potential.

The same pattern of neglect and lack of vision typifies our approach to the outer Perimeter. Cox describes what’s necessary, even after the long-delayed twinning on the east side is complete, to bring the highway up to freeway standards:

“It should no longer be possible to cross the highway, whether by car or train. This would require replacement of major grade crossings with overpasses and cloverleaf access roads. The highway should also be elevated over railroad crossings. Finally, the median crossings at the many local, sometimes gravel roads should be closed. Any remaining local roads should be configured at the new freeway so that they angle onto the roadway as a freeway on-ramp, rather than the current perpendicular design.”

What would that cost? In current coin, over a half billion dollars. But less if we just zeroed in on the perimeter’s most embarrassing features, the traffic lights plunked down on intersections that should be separated with cloverleafs – at McGillvray, Brady, St. Mary’s, St. Anne’s, Dugald, Gunn, Lagimodière, Pipeline, Patterson and Saskatchewan.

How would we pay for it? As the Winnipeg Free Press newspaper explained last February in an editorial titled “Highways paved with promises,” the Province of Manitoba collects $227 million a year in gasoline taxes and $335 million a year in total taxes and fees from the province’s drivers, but budgets only $160 million a year on construction and maintenance of highways, less a mind-boggling $39 million in various administrative overheads. To make the Perimeter Highway a first-world roadway, in a five-year program the highways department would have to spend only about half of the remaining funds that should have been dedicated to road-building and repair in the first place. In other words, we’re already paying the money for better roads but it leaks into other provincial purposes (where antiquated delivery philosophies are overwhelming more than ample funding in areas like health and education).

The need to modernize the Perimeter Highway is much more than a matter of reducing the carnage and loss of human capital caused by its inadequate state. It means bringing Winnipeg back up to snuff as a serious city worthy of major investments in economically wise infrastructure.

Here is a symbolic issue for the next election.

(Peter Holle is president of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy)