Better Roads = Lower Greenhouse Gases

Commentary, Role of Government, James Blatz

The Perimeter Highway’s inefficiency as a high-speed route due to signalized intersections has been a target of criticism for some time from its users and the media. Nine signalized intersections still exist on the Perimeter Highway causing traffic delays at numerous major thoroughfares such as Lagimodiere Boulevard, McGillivray Boulevard and Dugald Road. More importantly, the signalized intersections present dangerous collision points with high-speed conditions that often lead to fatalities such as the 2005 death of Crystal Taman. The current Perimeter Highway’s inefficiency in moving heavy truck traffic is also a potential limitation to Manitoba’s competitive position to be considered as a primary inland port for North America. The negative impacts of continuing to have signalized intersections on the Perimeter Highway are considerable.

Given the provincial government’s relentless position on meeting Kyoto targets at any cost, the Perimeter Highway can also be justified as a valuable emissions reduction strategy. Regardless of the ideology used to justify the policy, a free-flowing Perimeter Highway would provide numerous benefits to Manitobans including reduced greenhouse gas emissions, reduced travel times, reduced fuel costs for users, improved public safety and a better reputation for Winnipeg as a potential inland port.

A recent study published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy quantifies the emission reductions associated with replacing all signalized intersections with free-flowing interchanges. Traffic modeling software was used with annual traffic flow data and signal timings set by the Province to calculate the emission reductions associated with creating a true free-flowing, high-speed Perimeter Highway system. The results showed an annual reduction of over 7,500 tonnes of CO2 per year by eliminating idling traffic at the existing signalized intersections. The reduction in emissions would be complemented by an estimated 17% reduction in accidents. A typical user that would cross two existing signalized intersections twice a day (e.g. St. Anne’s Road and St. Mary’s Road) would save approximately $50 annually at current fuel prices. The upgrading would come at a cost estimated at over $300 million but compared to other environmental policies, provides considerably more secondary benefits to a majority of the taxpayers funding the policy.

Recent government announcements of policies directed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions appear to intentionally lack information about the policy costs. While the announcements boast significant reductions in emissions, the costs we are paying to achieve the goals are staggering. One obvious example is the Province’s decision to enact legislation that will ultimately require Manitoba Hydro to replace coal-burning generation with alternative energy sources. In the case of the Brandon Unit 5 generating station, coal-burning generation will likely be replaced by gas-turbine generation. Replacing Brandon Unit 5’s power generation to Unit 6 and 7’s power generation does reduce emissions notably but at a significant cost of up to an additional $24 million per year. In comparison to the 75-year design life of the nine interchanges for upgrading the Perimeter Highway at a cost of $300 million, the total cost of the Brandon 5 policy is in the order of $1.8 billion dollars. That expense provides no secondary benefits to Manitobans beyond the emissions reductions and arguably will burden Manitoba Hydro significantly in terms of their capital position with the additional costs.

To compare the two policies fairly, the total costs can be divided by the total emissions reductions to determine a cost per tonne of emissions removed on an annual basis. The cost for taking Brandon 5 offline is estimated to be over $200 per tonne annually whereas the Perimeter Highway upgrade is comparable but more expensive at over $500 per tonne. That is comparing the two strategies solely on the basis of the emissions reductions. When the reduced travel times, reduced fuel consumption, and increased public safety benefits are considered over and above emissions reductions, the Perimeter Highway policy is clearly more beneficial to the daily lives of many Manitobans while achieving significant emissions reductions. There is no question that the emissions reductions would be better than estimated in this study if this policy was to be implemented given more traffic would move from inner-city routes to a more efficient Perimeter Highway.

Instead of using heavy-handed legislation and regulation to force individuals and crown corporations to meet the Provincial emissions targets, the government should show leadership and invest in infrastructure improvements that will not only move towards their emissions targets but also provide other important benefits to Manitobans. Upgrading the Perimeter Highway to free-flowing conditions has demonstrated environmental benefits, cost and travel time benefits for the users and improved public safety. It is time for the Government to get serious about smart green policies that show concrete benefits to Manitobans beyond simple emissions reductions.

Written by Mark Hearson and James Blatz, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Manitoba.