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Archive for the ‘Manitoba Issues’ Category

Q: What do pet adoption rates tell us about our economy?

A: It tells us quite a bit more than we get from stats on consumer spending or consumer confidence.

If I were to buy a TV or even a car, it could be for one of two reasons:
a.    I need a TV/Car
b.    Wouldn’t it be cool to have the latest/fanciest TV/Car?  I’m going to buy one!

You could argue that people who NEED an item would not be buying the newest or best example of that item, but that’s not always true.  When we needed a car because the last one was attacked by a falling tree, we didn’t buy the cheapest used one available; we found a more expensive one, because it had the features that we had been without with the last car.  Yes, we have to pay every month for it, but we decided that we wanted a safe car to take our daughter places that aren’t particularly bus-accessible (or for when we have a case of the lazies).  So we would have bought some kind of new or almost-new car, and we didn’t feel that economic circumstances could bring us to a different result.

When we finally buy a new TV (we’ve lost three in the past year, and have been taking other people’s TVs to our palliative care facility), it won’t be the cheapest; it’ll be the one that best fits in our living room (probably 32 or 36 inches).   And with the TV, we’ll buy it once, and that’ll be it.  We won’t be financing it or leasing it, so we don’t need to worry if we’ll have money to make payments in three months.

Pet adoption is a different story.  Adopting a pet is a commitment to take responsibility for another life.  If money is tight, or a family is worried about keeping their jobs, adopting a pet will seem like a luxury they can’t afford.  At least that’s my assumption, since pet shelters are overflowing with animals, and adoptions are nowhere near keeping pace.

When I read in the paper that consumer confidence is up or that Christmas retail sales are at a good level, it doesn’t say nearly as much as when I hear that many pet shelters can’t take any new animals and that foster families are maxed out.  That information, coupled with the personal stories of bankruptcy that are becoming far more common, tells me that we’re still in the middle of this economic downturn.  And Manitoba has not escaped the effects; we’re just seeing them happen in slow motion compared to our friends in other provinces, and as transfer payments are slashed, it’ll take us longer than our neighbours to recover.

And following that uplifting anecdote…

Q: Why is downtown parking becoming the polarizing debate of our time?

A: People seem to have deluded themselves into thinking that parking is the core issue of downtown revitalization.

I know that parking is an important part of the character of our downtown, and I don’t like staring at surface parking lots or the WRHA’s tribute to urban decline on Main Street.  But realistically, I know that the city will continue to worship parking, just as I do between Christmas and Easter, and fighting downtown parking is like chaining yourself to the McDonalds at the Louvre to protest the lack of McRibs while museum staff is busy painting a bra onto the Venus de Milo.

There are two issues in downtown that turn parking into a boneless pork patty: historic preservation and residential growth.  I agree that surface lots don’t disappear when parkades are built, particularly when surface lots are left intact while adjacent historic buildings are torn down to make space for new parking; I know many people who will gladly exchange a bus pass for a parking spot if supply outstrips demand and prices start to drop.  Personally, I like the idea of incentives for surface lot redemption, to be followed after several years by a surface parking levy to finance further incentives.  In addition, it should be made impossible for ANY structurally sound building to be replaced with a parking structure or surface lot as long as there are existing surface lots on the same block.

But that doesn’t mean that parkades should be banned, or that all surface lot owners should have to pay five times the taxes because “there ought to be a building there”.  If they want to put a parkade in the East Exchange, I wouldn’t stand in their way if:
a.    No existing buildings are demolished
b.    Street-level commercial space is incorporated into the parkade
c.    The architectural design of the parkade is deemed acceptable by city council

Obviously, in a perfect world, I would put far stricter requirements on the construction of parkades in the Exchange District; one item I’d love to add is that construction materials for the building façade should come from reclaimed brick, but I don’t think that’s realistic in our current political environment.  As with everything else, city council will not back the Exchange District 100% until they are utterly convinced of just how valuable the area is.  I find it strange that the East Side of Lake Winnipeg is considered UNESCO-worthy by the province, but the Exchange District is left to be demolished one building at a time.

Why is it that a provincial park around Fisher Bay is touted as being worth $38 million, while the Exchange District, a national historic site, is completely ignored?  Do our governments have no concept of how much that neighbourhood is worth, or how much potential it has?  In the words of Councillor O’Shaughnessy: “The debate is getting lower and lower and lower. Please don’t compare this building or even our whole exchange district with the walled city of Quebec.”   Because the Exchange District will have no historical value no matter how old it gets,  we should replace it with parkades while financing is cheap.

And lastly…

Q: Why do NDP apologists feel the need to defend every action by every member of the Manitoba government?

A: Because it seems to work?  Does it?

I understand the idea of supporting your party; I even launched an incredibly successful fundraising campaign for the Manitoba Liberals: Help Block Out PC Websites! (as of today, only 6% behind the Progressive Conservative Fundraising Campaign!)

But sometimes, the men and women of your political party make mistakes.  I won’t list any Liberal mistakes, but I will admit (shockingly) that mistakes have been made.  If bloggers such as Never Eat Yellow Snow and Just Damn Stupid were to focus on defending more defensible actions on the part of the NDP, wouldn’t people be more convinced that their points of view have merit?

Note: I do apologize if any of my past actions mixed with this post now warrant a BlockReganHypocrisy.ca.

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A strange fundraising campaign has been launched by the Manitoba PC Party.  They are asking people to donate $10 for a “virtual cell phone” that will cover up part of a photo from Nov 2008 (a year ago) of Deputy Premier Rosann Wowchuk using her cell phone while driving, a shocking and rather stale example of NDP hypocrisy.

So of course, I needed to get a piece of that action.  I’ll get into that later…

I just don’t understand how these antics demonstrate that the Progressive Conservatives are ready to assume leadership of this province.  Their Chicken Wing Party of Manitoba of 2008 still has a Facebook page, and one can only hope that during its active phase it had more than the 30 members it has today.

Curtis has an unusual response to the latest PC campaign, while Cherenkov says what I think most of us are thinking.  So what would I have done better?  That’s a difficult question.  I can certainly understand the frustration that the PC party is feeling; as a Liberal, I’m frustrated, too.  The NDP have been responsible for some very serious scandals over the past decade, including mistakes that have cost lives, as well as an ongoing matter with Manitoba Hydro that could result in billions of dollars being lost.  But at the end of the day, many Manitobans are still supporting the NDP party.

I have a few ideas I’m working on for how to get Manitobans to start listening to alternatives, and I may try some of them out on this very blog.  But for the time being, I’ll just leave it at this: for anyone who donates a minimum of ten dollars to the Manitoba Liberal Party, and who e-mails or posts a comment to let me know (we can use the honour system and clever pseudonyms, since I won’t bother checking), I will add one package of Beef Jerky to cover up this banner for the PC Victory Fund.

Exhibit A: The Beef Jerky of Liberal Justice

Exhibit B: The Victory Fund Banner (until the takedown notice arrives).

Note: As this brilliant campaign took 10 minutes to develop, I won’t be too upset if I don’t get my 30 fans.

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So I asked myself: can you put your money where your mouth is, or – one of my favourite lines — is your mouth writing cheques your butt can’t cash?

Winnipeg has a very low apartment vacancy rate; meanwhile, the majority of downtown residential construction is for condos, which generally sell for over $200,000.  This is certainly a welcome increase in residential population for downtown, but there is a risk that future condo projects could outpace demand.  Apartments, as the hardest type of residence to find in Winnipeg, are our best bet for greatly increasing the population in the heart of the city.

Related story: A deal for developers, by Murray McNeill (Winnipeg Free Press)

For many years (ever since I spent some time in Brandon), I’ve been thinking about a new kind of grassroots, socially-responsible real estate investment trust for apartment construction.  Well, actually, at first I called it “let’s knock down the eyesores beside my house and put in a nice apartment block.”

As a layperson who knows little about financial instruments and the laws regarding investing, I’ve never understood why regular people don’t band together to create for-profit organizations to create new development in existing neighbourhoods.

Maybe it’s the concept of profit; so many Neighbourhood Renewal Corporations are built on the premise that they are not-for-profit corporations, working primarily to improve a community.  And obviously, a not-for-profit creates a friendlier atmosphere to receive public money.  This could work well in older communities, such as the Spence neighbourhood, or in Elmwood (believe me, I’ve thought about that quite a bit).  But I’m not sure it could work somewhere like the Exchange District, which does have residents, but where the vast majority of resources and well-wishers are outsiders to the existing  residential community.

Now, like most Internet blowhards, I don’t have a large pile of money under my bed (usually all I find are ripped up diapers under there, thanks to my dog), but I might be able to convince my daughter to part with $500-1000 of “Elmo money” for a lofty goal.  Is it possible that there may be other Winnipeggers who not only share a soft spot for the Exchange District, but who could also put a small amount of money into a worthy project?

I can envision two separate concepts that could work for improving the Exchange District with smaller contributions of progressive Winnipeggers (I said progressive, so now Graham is obligated to send money for this stuff):

1.    A baby Real Estate Investment Trust

Now it may not actually be possible to have an REIT with such a small amount of capitalization, but the methodology is similar.  A possible mechanism is a reverse microlending plan, with contracts stipulating an interest-only mortgage for a fixed period.  This trust could be governed similarly to regular REITs, and would pay annual dividends (and/or interest).

The idea is contingent on finding around 320 people who are willing to risk some money (between $500-1500 per person) on the idea of creating new rental housing in the Exchange District, either by retrofitting an old structure or by new construction on a surface lot.

Under the minimum scenario of 320 donors, using 70% mortgage financing and estimated grants of $20,000 per unit (assuming conservative city and provincial tax-increment financing grants), a 10-unit apartment building could be built or renovated in the Exchange District.  The total project cost would need to be kept under $1.6 million including property acquisition, and total grants of $200,000 would be required (more grant money may be possible).  With anticipated annual revenues of $135,000 (based on 95% occupancy rate with estimated current market rental rates), this project would be able to generate a modest profit.  The original investment would take around a decade to recoup, with investors receiving slightly more than 10% every year.

If more investors could be found, or their contributions increased, it’s possible to expand the scope of the project to cover 20 or 30 units.  2000 investors contributing between $200-1,200 could finance a 26-unit apartment building.  Of course, finding 2000 investors for an unproven idea is much less realistic than berating 320 people to take part.

2.    An online donation and microlending aggregation website

This is an idea that is not only for the construction of apartments, but it could include those types of plans.  The website would be a place where anyone could create a donation/lending account using PayPal or other financing methods.  Each registered user (or benefactor) would have the option of making manual payments, or setting up an automated debit.  Their payments would go into a personal online account.  Not-for-profit corporations, community groups, businesses, and private citizens will be given the ability to register to make requests for donations or loans for their project (as petitioners).  Their project would first be reviewed by a board of volunteers to ensure legitimacy and appropriateness, and would then be categorized on the type of request.  Examples of possible categories are:

  • Community improvements (community centres, faith-based organizations, renewal corporations, schools)
  • Environmental initiatives (riverbank and park improvement groups, specialized recycling programs)
  • Commercial endeavours (microlending for home-based businesses, ambitious apartment-building campaigns)

Benefactors would have the ability to pre-screen which requests they are sent by category or geographical area, but would also be able to view any other requests on the website.  There would also be an automatic feature which (if desired by the benefactor) would contribute a given amount to each worthy cause that fits their criteria.  They would then have a specific amount of time to reverse their automatic contribution.

At first, the system would expect registered charities to provide receipts for donations independently of the website, but the website organization could itself become a registered charity in time.  Some benefactors would choose to only donate to charities (perhaps only registered charities), while others may choose to only loan money.

The whole idea is to enable groups of ordinary citizens to influence their community in a positive way, seeing results in smaller specific projects as opposed to a blanket donation to an agency.  The system is not meant to replace organizations like the United Way, but to supplement them with a tool that would be considered fun to use (at least, I think it would be fun).  In addition, there would be no reason why the United Way or Siloam Mission couldn’t submit their own specific projects to the website.

…………………………

Both of these ideas involve some serious legal work to make sure that risk and misuse is minimized as much as possible; there may also be problems with creating what could be unregulated financial tools (this is beyond my level of investment knowledge).

Do either of these ideas make any sense?  Do either have merit?  I don’t know if they do.  I think that someone out there has enough knowledge and experience to make something similar happen.  If that’s the case, it would certainly be a good thing for Winnipeg.

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On a personal note: I have been away from this blog and from many other activities over the past few months due to a family situation; I’m not back full time to my “extracurriculars”, but the comments on the CBC story compelled me to do some of my own research.

Most Manitobans aren’t aware of the high-stakes plan that Manitoba Hydro is planning over the next fifteen years.  Starting from its current debt load of $7 billion, Hydro plans to build new generating stations and transmission lines that would add $18 billion or more in capital costs to its debt load.  This could bring its total debt load to $25 billion.

This debt load isn’t necessarily a dangerous increase as long as Hydro can increase its revenues by around 300% to manage this debt at the targeted 75:25 equity to debt ratio.  Hydro plans to rely on export to other provinces or to US states for the additional revenue, and its forecasts, like most forecasts, are based on estimated values for many variables.

For instance, the Hydro forecast has to assume an US exchange rate for any exports to the United States.  According to the Public Utilities Board (PUB), Hydro’s forecast is for a Canadian dollar at around US$0.85.

In addition, Hydro forecasts a continuation of low interest rates to finance construction, as well as US carbon taxes and/or increased fuel costs to increase the export price of Hydro’s power to 12¢/kW.h from the current price of around 5.5¢/kW.h.  As well, the PUB has shown concern that Hydro’s forecasts do not adequately include construction inflation and increased commodity costs from the past few years.

If any of their predictions are incorrect, Hydro may be left with more debt than it can adequately manage.  This situation often leads to bankruptcy in private corporations, but in the case of Manitoba Hydro would most likely result in a bailout from the Province of Manitoba.

Considering that the Province of Manitoba did not use the past decade of financial prosperity to pay down debt (despite using Hydro as a source of revenue), and considering the very real possibility of a reduction in the $2 billion in federal transfer payments, the province does not have the resources or the “rainy-day fund” to handle the size of bailout that could be necessary if Hydro goes bust.

Supply and Demand

In addition to the financial risk, there is also a risk that demand (both domestic and export) will exceed supply.  Even if no power was exported, Hydro would still need to increase supply in order to meet the expected increase in domestic demand.  With exports included, the demand will increase from a current level of 28,735 GW.h to an estimated peak of 37,223 GW.h in 2024/2025.  Without conservation or alternative sources of power, this increased demand will require the construction of Wuskwatim, Keeyask and Conawapa generating stations, as well as the Bipole III transmission line long the West side of Lakes Winnipegosis and Manitoba.  While Wuskwatim and Conawapa could meet the increase without Keeyask, Conawapa is not expected to be operational until 2024/2025, so Keeyask would handle the demand overrun that would otherwise occur in 2018.

If any economic, political, technical or environmental delays occur in the construction of any of these three generating stations, Manitoba Hydro will be forced to either import more power or throttle domestic consumption (generally through brownouts), and it’s possible that both solutions would need to be used together (along with a very large rate increase for Manitobans).

Rate Hikes

Currently, Hydro subsidizes the price of domestic electricity with its export revenues.  As domestic demand (which is significantly larger than export demand) increases, export revenues must increase in order to keep domestic rates at the same level.  If Hydro’s forecasts prove to be inaccurate and export revenues decrease, the domestic rate subsidies will have to end.  In addition, the possibility of export prices dropping below the increasing cost of generation and administration (due to higher debt and the new construction projects) could result in domestic customers being forced to subsidize exports.  This would result in an even larger increase in domestic hydro rates.

Domestic hydro rates differ based on usage.  Residential rates are currently set at  6.25¢/kW.h.  Non-residential rates actually include a better rate for a larger volume of electricity (one average figure provided by the PUB is 3.2¢/kW.h), but also have demand charges, which charge for higher demand at a given moment than the more steady requirements of residential customers.  Manitoba Hydro has a higher-than-average demand charge rate, while having probably the lowest electricity rates in Canada.  This means that the pressure on Hydro will most likely be to increase the general rates as opposed to the demand charges.  It is possible that Hydro could apply for higher rates for non-residential customers, but with residential rates as low as they are, there’s a very strong chance that residential rates would be raised at the same or a similar percentage as non-residential rates (this has been the trend in the past).

Hydro has previously estimated its generation and transmission costs at 7.0¢/kW.h, so it’s clear that an end to subsidies from export revenue would result in a shortfall of 0.25¢/kW.h for residential customers, and larger shortfalls for non-residential customers that vary based on usage and demand.

The current generation and transmission costs are estimated (according to the PUB) to increase to as much as 12¢/kW.h by 2025.  Manitoba Hydro is banking on export prices rising to 12¢/kW.h in the same timeframe.  If both the PUB and Hydro are correct in their respective estimates, the profit on exports will be minimal, and there could even be a slight loss on exports.  If PUB is correct while Hydro’s forecasts are too optimistic, the low profit or slight loss could become a large deficit.  Manitoba Hydro’s domestic customers will be left to subsidize energy for the people of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Let’s assume that over the next 15 years the exports are revenue neutral, and generation and transmission costs reach a conservative estimate of 10.0¢/kW.h (megaprojects such as Conawapa and Bipole III will definitely increase costs during this timeframe).  In that case, residential rates will need to rise to at around 11.0¢/kW.h barring much larger increases to non-residential rates or demand charges.  That is not only an increase of 75% from today’s rates, it’s an increase of almost 100% from 2004.  In essence, Manitoba Hydro will have doubled hydro rates in the space of twenty years.

Of course, any failure or delay in the construction of the new generating stations (assuming no alternative solutions) or Bipole III could result in larger energy imports, while a higher Canadian dollar or a lack of energy pressures in the United States could further cause massive deficits from the export deals.  The worst-case scenario for rates could see up to a tripling of hydro rates.

Plan of action

Because the export deals are already signed, and because we do want to share our energy with other jurisdictions for economic and environmental reasons, we need to find ways of minimizing the risk.

The first step to minimizing risk is to have a clear accounting of just how much risk is involved.  The Manitoba government should ask for clarification from Hydro on its upcoming projects (just as the Public Utilities Board has asked), to ensure that the construction costs for the generating stations and for Bipole III are estimates that take construction inflation and overruns into consideration.  It should not be difficult for Premier Selinger, who worked as the minister in charge of Manitoba Hydro for ten years, to find out the exact export and construction forecasts.

Because the vast majority of the increased demand will come from domestic growth in consumption, there are ways for the provincial government to achieve gains through conservation.  There is also the possibility of allowing competition from private entities in the production of alternative power.  Manitoba Hydro includes an increase in wind power as part of its forecasts, even though its largest wind project is currently in jeopardy due to the financial difficulties of Babcock and Brown.  It is possible that new partnerships could emerge to compensate with new wind, solar, or biomass energy production.  If enough conservation and alternatives can be put in place, it may be possible to postpone the construction of Conawapa until more favourable export prices can be assured.  Postponing Conawapa would save approximately $6.3 billion.

There are some cost-cutting measures that are available, such as a reconsideration of the route of Bipole III (around half a billion in savings) or administrative efficiencies (probably less than $10-20 million per year).  Conversely, as it was government interference that led to the extra expense for Bipole III as well as the new Hydro headquarters, the government should be expected to contribute the cost difference from general revenues for the transmission megaproject if it believes that the endeavour is worthwhile.  In addition, the Manitoba government could suspend its yearly water rental and assessment fees that it is charging Hydro, which amount to $123 million for 2009 and could save close to $2 billion for Hydro over the next fifteen years.

If these solutions are implemented successfully, Hydro could see its $18 billion increase in capital costs reduced by one third, along with additional operating funds that could be used to pay down long-term debt.

As the PUB states, it is not reasonable for Hydro to embark on $18 billion in construction without generating some up-front capital, and the same can be said for $12 billion.  As Hydro rates have been kept artificially low for several decades, further rate increases are necessary.  Slight increases now can greatly reduce financing costs and could mean the difference between a competitive utility and a sinkhole.

Rate increases will adversely affect residents on fixed incomes, but it is the job of the government to deal with this issue, as opposed to Manitoba Hydro.  It is not fair to expect a utility company to subsidize lower income customers; subsidies should come from general government revenue.

I believe that our current crisis with Manitoba Hydro is due in no small part to pressures from the Manitoba government (and not just the current NDP government) to force a crown corporation to lose money on something that is the government’s responsibility.  This is seen not only in the subsidized electricity rates, but also in the government mandate that Hydro spend an extra half-billion dollars on a different route for Bipole III.  It is not at all appropriate for the NDP government to make expensive demands of Hydro without providing some of the funding.

I strongly hope that government action will prevent a tripling of hydro rates or a future bailout of a bankrupt Hydro, but in a way it’s the natural consequence of a government that has been using Hydro as a source of revenue at a time when the utility should have been building up capital for its expansion projects.

If someone had asked me even two years ago if I thought that brownouts and bankruptcy were possibilities for Manitoba Hydro, I would have laughed.  I guess I hadn’t taken the time to really look at the numbers.  Now that I have, I’m concerned not just for the future of Hydro but for the future of our province.  Just as a railroad construction almost bankrupted Prince Edward Island colony in 1872 (and through confederation gave our country the idyllic West Point Beach), construction for our once strong Hydro utility is in danger of destroying Manitoba’s future.  Premier Selinger had better take action soon on this crisis.

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Assuming that the Free Press is correct, Swan will be dropping out today.

I don’t have time today for one of my long-winded posts, so I’ll just put out a few thoughts because I don’t want my latest word on this to be my prediction that Swan could win.  🙂

I don’t think anyone truly expected Ashton to be doing as well as he is, but it looks like his delegate count is within range of winning.  I imagine that, like me, Ashton and his campaign team expected a much stronger showing from Swan to take delegates away from Selinger.  Of course, a political strategist (i.e., not me) would most likely have foreseen that the chances were high that either Swan or Selinger could drop out before Oct 17th, which could still ruin the chance of a first ballot win.  And with only Selinger as his big opponent, that means a Selinger win (there will only be one ballet).

I like what I’m seeing in the NDP; for too long, it has been the Gary Doer party, relying solely on the abilities and attentions of one person.  This led to serious holes in NDP governance, with little to no improvement in health care or justice.  Hopefully an NDP government that relies more on its members for ideas and support will be a government that is a little less focused on the legacy and survival of the premier and more on the needs of Manitobans.

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MP Jim Maloway is taking a page from Pat Martin’s playbook and prematurely announcing that the provincial government will be contributing at least $50 million to the city for a new four lane Disraeli to be built alongside the existing bridge.  The plan is to keep the current bridge open until the new bridge has been completed, which would eliminate most of the construction gridlock.

Mayor Sam Katz has responded to Maloway’s announcement, saying that it will cost $200 million to create the bridge that Maloway describes including Active Transportation.  (it’s unclear if the $200 million would include a separate Active Transportation bridge, or Active Transportation lanes on a new Disraeli span.

Quite a few people are upset that the plan is for only four lanes, and not six.  There are traffic delays along Henderson just north of the Disraeli bridge, so many residents would like to see a six lane bridge to ease congestion.  Unfortunately, a six lane bridge won’t ease that congestion, because the bottleneck happens at Hespeler Avenue and will continue to happen no matter how many bridge lanes are added.

One of the things about traffic flow is that limited-access expressways are different from regular thoroughfares.  Generally, a regular thoroughfare requires one extra lane both ways compared to an expressway, because it needs a lane for turning, bus stops, and cyclists.   Henderson is a thoroughfare, and that third lane greatly increases the efficiency of the road, because it usually means two unobstructed lanes available to traffic.  This gives Henderson as many unobstructed lanes as Disraeli has, since Disraeli has ramps for turning and for bus stops.

Disraeli Freeway is a true freeway for most of its length; of course, it’s an older freeway, so its on and off ramps are shorter than most.  It also has the issue of a pedestrian crossing on its Sutherland Avenue ramps, which slow traffic slightly.  Even with these shortcomings, the Disraeli does not have any major bottlenecks.  In truth, while traffic often slows during rush hours, particularly heading away from Downtown in the evening, traffic rarely comes to a stop on Disraeli.  When traffic is stopped, it is normally due to traffic backups from the lights at Hespeler Avenue, and in particular the light for turning onto Hespeler.

The addition of a third lane will not eliminate traffic backups at Hespeler, as it will not lower the amount of time spent at the Hespeler traffic lights.  There are only two ways to improve traffic flow on Henderson:

1.    Widen Henderson Hwy from three lanes to four, forcing business and residents to relocate: This is not considered a realistic or practical solution.
2.    Lessen the amount of traffic on Henderson Hwy or on Hespeler/Talbot/Midwinter: moving traffic to another route would reduce the bottleneck.

Other options do not result in better flow.  Removing access to Hespeler from Northbound Henderson would cause as much or more traffic problems as commuters attempt to use Johnson or a side street to reach the Redwood Bridge.  Building an interchange for Henderson, Hespeler, Talbot and Disraeli is even less practical than widening Henderson itself due to space limitations.

Assuming that population growth in North Kildonan, Transcona, and outlying municipalities will continue, it is reasonable to assume that traffic volume on Henderson will continue to increase.  Unless alternatives to even more cars on Henderson Hwy can be found, no amount of investment on Disraeli will prepare the Northeast for more traffic.

There are three major road projects occurring in Northeast Winnipeg over the next decade:

1.    Disraeli Bridge reconstruction
2.    Chief Peguis Trail extension from Henderson Hwy to Lagimodiere Blvd
3.    Louise Bridge relocation and reconstruction

All three projects are ambitious and will change the way traffic flows in the Northeast.  However, these three projects are missing one very important piece: connections between them.  Chief Peguis will function well for commuters who live at the North edge of Winnipeg, but will not alleviate traffic issues closer to downtown.  Commuters travelling to and from downtown will still need to take Henderson Hwy, and many will continue to take the smaller East-West routes to get to Lagimodiere and beyond.  The best route to take commuters from downtown to Lagimodiere is currently underused: the twin routes, Gateway Rd and Raleigh Street.

Gateway and Raleigh have the potential to become part of an efficient thoroughfare that runs directly from The Forks to Lagimodiere and the Perimeter.  This route does not need to become a high-speed freeway (or neighbourhood annihilation road); it can have speeds ranging from 50-70 kph as it runs diagonally to the Northeast corner of Winnipeg.  This route comes with room for a transitway and with an Active Transportation corridor that is mostly developed already.

Here is one possible path for the Gateway / Raleigh route (tongue-in-cheek suggestion: we could call it Gary Doer Blvd if that brings in some provincial money):

1.    The south end of Gary Doer Blvd is where Higgins Avenue meets Waterfront Drive.  The new road runs north to the CPR tracks and follows them to the Red River at the eastern tip of Point Douglas, where it crosses the river and Archibald Street via the new four-lane Louise Bridge.
2.    Once over Archibald, Gary Doer Blvd heads under the Nairn Overpass.  This portion is the most complex of the entire plan, because there are three rail lines to negotiate to arrive under Nairn Avenue.  Part of the new Louise Bridge is the offshoot that leads to the upcoming Russ Wyatt Parkway, which leads to Transcona.  This portion won’t of course be started until after Russ is crowned king of Winnipeg in 2020 (my timeline could be a little off).
3.    From under Nairn, Gary Doer Blvd crosses Talbot and heads along Raleigh and Gateway.  The boulevard has three lanes each way, but the right lane is a diamond lane.  It’s not a diamond lane for buses, which actually use the center lane to access their bus turnouts along the Northeast Pioneers Greenway, but for turning on and off the boulevard from the various side streets that pour into the road.
4.    North of the new intersection with Concordia and Kimberley, Gary Doer Blvd’s southbound lanes run alongside the northbound lanes, completely East of the Greenway.  The five residential streets from Helmsdale to Roberta Avenues see the once busy Raleigh Street replaced with a one-way and single-lane road to connect the streets to their back lanes and to each other, with outgoing traffic using Golspie St to access Kimberley.  This allows Centennial and Anderson parks to connect directly to the Greenway without any roads in between.  This arrangement continues, with only minor adjustments, all the way to Springfield Rd.
5.    Chief Peguis Trail and Gary Doer Blvd meet with an interchange, the only one that Gary Doer Blvd has between the Louise Bridge and the Perimeter.
6.    After Chief Peguis, Gary Doer Blvd continues to Knowles Avenue.  At Knowles, the route turns almost due east, where it connects to Lagimodiere and the Perimeter as part of a turbo roundabout.

Has the time come for a serious study of Gary Doer Blvd?  I think it has.  It seems silly to spend over half a billion dollars over the next decade on transportation in Northeast Winnipeg without having a complete solution in mind.

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Like most Manitobans, I was under the impression that Peak of the Market was a private company that consisted of voluntary partnerships with Manitoba vegetable producers.  This impression has been formed by quite a few assumptions on my part, so I suppose I should blame myself first for not taking the time to get the facts.  Once I read the story of a potato farmer’s fight with Peak of the Market, I realized that I was completely mistaken about the nature of this Manitoba company.

As it turns out, Peak of the Market is a not-for-profit corporation which has been given the right (apparently for the past 20 years) of licensing all marketing of potatoes and root crops in Manitoba.  Anyone who wishes to sell ANY produce within Peak’s mandate must apply for a license, pay a levy, and only produce within their provided quota.  This is similar to other Manitoba marketing boards, such as the Dairy Farmers of Manitoba, the Manitoba Pork Council, and Manitoba Chicken Producers.

These organizations are usually set up by the Manitoba government, but are run by an elected board of producers.  These boards set minimum pricing and quotas, and all sales are to be made within that system.  These boards exist for two main purposes:

1.    Ensure stable pricing by maintaining stable supply and mandating minimum prices.
2.    Coordinate marketing and lobbying efforts through one central office.

The government mandates that all producers must pay a levy to support their marketing board.  If membership wasn’t mandatory, the board would not function properly, as a producer could charge prices under the minimum or flood the market with new produce.  Like medieval guilds, the boards survive by forcing all producers to be members.

For the record, I personally believe that marketing boards should survive only by the direct consent of a majority of its members; if a majority of producers want to opt out, the board should be dissolved.  I have no idea what the majority opinion is regarding the various marketing boards, and I don’t know which boards (if any) actually poll their members on the question of if the board should continue to operate (ultimately, the decision would be made by the Manitoba government).

The existence of the marketing board is not the problem at this point.  The problem is more in the current nature and operations of Peak of the Market:

1.    They have apparently not provided a framework for licensing of the specific type of potato that the farmer wishes to sell, so all sales of such a potato grown in Manitoba are in violation of Manitoba law.  The farmer has apparently admitted that he has no wish to be licensed, so it’s not clear that this conflict could have been avoided even if a process had been in place.
2.    They have suddenly begun enforcing their monopoly on the smaller producers (under four acres) they used to ignore, without any apparent warning to the small producers or their customers (that I could find).
3.    Their marketing (including their website) does not clearly mention that they are a marketing board, and due to their name being different than other boards and due to the cult of personality around their President & CEO, Larry McIntosh, they have created the impression among many Manitobans that they are a private, voluntary collection of growers, which is not accurate.  Of course, there is no evidence available that they intended any deception.

In addition to the current actions of Peak of the Market with potatoes, another concern is that there are some very unusual aspects to Peak of the Market that are not present in other marketing boards:

1.    They operate as a produce brand in addition to functioning as a marketing board.  This gives the impression that they are a private company competing with other private companies.
2.    They are allowed to market all regulated and other non-regulated produce under the Peak of the Market brand, which means that they can sell produce that is not regulated by the government plan, which can include other types of agricultural produce from within or outside of Manitoba.  All produce, whatever its origin, could then carry the Peak of the Market brand.
3.    Peak of the Market emphasizes the leadership of President & CEO Larry McIntosh, and does not even mention the existence of their board of directors.  According to the regulations, their board is to be made up of between 5 and 9 members who must at all times be registered producers or designated representatives elected by all registered producers in Manitoba.  There is no mention of whether or not Larry McIntosh is on the board of directors, or who the chairperson of the board might be.  I could not find any list of board members by searching the web, but please not that I have not requested the information directly from either Peak of the Market or the Manitoba government.  (My point is that I shouldn’t have to contact someone directly to find out who is on the board of a provincially-mandated company.)

Peak of the Market is an anomaly among Manitoba marketing boards, and I personally find it disconcerting that is emphasizes its CEO while not publishing its board of directors.  I also believe it is inappropriate for a marketing board to use its name as a brand on products, and I do not think it is appropriate for a marketing board to be allowed to conduct business in products outside its mandated area of production.

While it may be argued that marketing boards do have a reason to exist in Manitoba, and it may very well be that the majority of potato and root crop farmers are satisfied with the current licensing system, Peak of the Market is not conducting itself in a way that most Manitobans would expect from a government-mandated organization.  Monopolies, if they should exist at all, should be transparent and accountable, and under the control of the government and its citizens.  In its marketing and on its website, Peak of the Market has neglected to be clear about what type of organization it is.

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It wouldn’t be fair to expect any replacement for Gary Doer to be as well-versed in political strategy as the outgoing premier; it takes time to learn to play the leader game, and even high-ranking cabinet ministers need some time to develop their skills.  However, some of the strategies currently employed by leadership hopefuls are unexpected and unconventional.

Odd Strategy #1: Ashton – we’ve got this thing in the bag

Ashton decided to have an announcement about his 1,100 new members, saying that he thinks he’ll win on the first ballot.  If this is a strategy meant to demoralize his competition, I think he’s underestimating the sheer organizational power of both Swan and Selinger.  Both of his opponents have strong teams, and matching 1,100 new members is nowhere near an impossible task for a campaign machine, as long as they aren’t just starting now with two days left.  I know from firsthand experience that a campaign team can seem dormant for weeks, until it comes out all of the sudden and surpasses all competitors.  The NDP machine didn’t move as quickly as we expected in Elmwood, but on the final day of advance polling, the NDP machine swung into action.  By the time election day came around, the NDP had hundreds of workers in Elmwood, and even the Conservatives had brought dozens of staffers and MLAs to get out the vote.

It could simply be a strategy to make sure that Ashton isn’t seen as an “also-ran” by the media.  Already, it seems that there is strong interest in Swan and Selinger, with Ashton sometimes being left to a small mention at the end of the story.

Odd Strategy #2: Swan – pick me, I’m young!

I understand the benefits of being a younger candidate, and I understand the drawbacks.  By placing emphasis on his age, is Swan bringing in votes or accentuating his inexperience compared to his competitors?  Some have likened the situation to the days when Doer took over from Pawley, and that because Doer was young then, it makes sense that his successor should be young now.  There is a strong difference, however, between the end of the Pawley days with the end of the Doer days: a majority of people still like Gary Doer’s leadership, and are sorry to see him go.  When Pawley was finished, it was clear that the voters were looking for a big change; I doubt that most of the NDP members who will be voting at the leadership convention are looking for a big change, and of those who do want to shake things up, they’re probably not wanting another Doer.

In a situation where a popular leader is stepping down, it’s a good idea to paint yourself as that leader’s preferred successor.  But by reminding NDP members of just how young he is, and by extension how short his public service has been, Swan is not quite framing himself as a stable continuation of Doer; instead, he looks like an untested option, with little track record to show.

Odd Strategy #3: Selinger – endorsements are the tops

I don’t doubt that Selinger’s people are working hard to bring members on board; however, his outward-facing campaign is underwhelming considering how powerful a contender he is.  His entry was late, and his announcements so far have been rather uninspiring.  He has received some good endorsements, and while endorsements are more important in member votes than in general elections, they’re still not enough when another candidate is working hard to be the man of the people.  Unless Selinger is connecting to NDP members en masse, his private lobbying may not be enough.

Predictions

I believe that Swan’s campaign team has the edge right now, because they have backing from many powerful figures in the Manitoba NDP.  As long as the NDP delegates aren’t made up primarily of left-wing activists, I feel that Swan has wide enough appeal to win, as long as his campaign team does a good job.  However, if any mud-slinging begins between Swan and Selinger, the advantage may shift to Ashton, who has strong “good guy” appeal along with his popularity among long-time NDP members.  I think that if Selinger’s campaign doesn’t start picking up, he may end up being too late to win.

If I were to place a bet today, it would be on Swan… but I wouldn’t bet very much.

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The Winnipeg Free Press (Geoff Kirbyson) reports that Greyhound’s break-even point is $4 per mile.  I’ve also read (from less official sources) that Greyhound buses require around 22 passengers (just under half-full) for a line to be profitable.  There are probably other factors that could cause a bus line to be less profitable than it appears, but the only thing that would make a Greyhound bus line more profitable in the short term would be a government subsidy.

If Winnipeg to Thompson is making money (and it looks to me like it is, or would be with some efficient management), the government of Manitoba should be deciding whether or not to ask for tenders for a new contracted provider, or opening up the route to any competitors who want to service it.

As Flin Flon to Thompson is not profitable, the government of Manitoba must subsidize.  However, this does not mean simply handing money out to Greyhound.  Instead, the Manitoba government should take a look at some of the strategies employed by Saskatchewan’s STC and other transportation companies:

  • smaller buses (even passenger vans) – does the savings on maintenance and fuel result in any efficiencies, or is the cost of the driver the major factor?
  • if drivers are too expensive, is it possible to move to a partly on-demand model where on certain less-popular days of the week, contracted bus drivers are only activated (with reasonable advance notice) if there are enough paid fares?  One or two guaranteed runs per week would be in place around which medical appointments and even events would be scheduled, with the possibility of extra guaranteed runs for special occasions (holiday seasons, festivals, etc).

Do we have any data on the reasons for bus travel?  How many Manitobans travel from Flin Flon to Thompson for medical appointments?  How many make the trip to visit with family?  Is the breakdown quite a bit different than the Thompson to Winnipeg route?

Medical appointments can be scheduled based on guaranteed bus runs, especially in a province with strong government control of healthcare.  The same can be said for family visits, but it’s also possible that an on-demand system tied to a web site (made accessible as well through the town library or municipal office) would allow riders to check the status of on-demand routes while planning their visit.

The only big exception to scheduling that I can think of is family emergencies.  Obviously, if my mother is sick and I need to get to her right away, I won’t be very happy having to wait three days until the next guaranteed run.  However, that unfortunate situation may not be something that we can afford to fix through large government subsidies.  Such an emergency may require help from friends or neighbours; it may even be possible for the bus line to have a “guaranteed run option” which would set a cost for the rider to assure that the on-demand run would occur even if they were the only passenger.  Each additional passenger choosing the guaranteed option would reduce the surcharge to the original passenger by half, while other passengers choosing “on demand” (or standby) for a seat would also reduce the initial surcharge by a lesser amount.  Would a passenger who needs to get from Flin Flon to Thompson be willing to pay $90 instead of $30 if that guarantees that they can get there when they want to?  It might, and at least the option would be available.  And it would not be impossible to imagine that neighbours and friends would be willing to help out with the cost in the case of an emergency.

What I find interesting about Greyhound’s operation is that they find their freight runs profitable while their passenger runs are losing money.  I’m not well-versed on company procedure, so I am only assuming that they are referring to runs where they’d rather take a cargo van than a bus with a cargo trailer.  Is it not possible to look at smaller vehicles which have limited passenger capacity while maintaining the required cargo space?  Is it a requirement to have a large coach with bathrooms (which many people try to avoid using anyway)?

Obviously, Greyhound won’t be looking at different options.  They have markets which they feel are profitable (including their forays into Britain), and markets that they’d like to dump.  They’re not going to take the time and the risk of trying to fix the rural Canada passenger business.  If we want to see new ideas and efficiencies, we need to find new operators.  This takes time, so it may be necessary to subsidize Greyhound in the short term while the new options are being organized.

Do these new options include a crown corporation?  Like many Manitobans, I do worry that a new crown corp would mean inefficiencies, so if a government corporate entity were to be involved, I’d prefer that it have a business plan based on choosing contract operators, as opposed to running lines itself.  While this does not eliminate all possibilities of bloat, it would certainly foster competition between private entities, which would provide a motive for creating well-run bus lines.

Inter-city bus travel is still a necessity in Manitoba, and subsidizing it in some form will likely be required for many years to come; it is not fair nor is it wise to ask a senior, student, or anyone who is either unable or unwilling to travel by car to do so.  However, this doesn’t mean we need to add a $15 million hole to our budget every year (which is sure to go up after the first easy payment).  In fact, the Saskatchewan Transportation Company has an approximately $7  million shortfall every year.  A new and innovative model in Manitoba can cost much less.

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I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer.  I read about new technologies or about new initiatives in other places, and I think… why not here?

  • Why can’t we bring our arts and cultural scene from surprisingly vibrant to surprisingly world-renowned?
  • Why can’t we sell people on our Chicago of the North district that is more complete than anything you’d find in Illinois?
  • Why don’t we take the industrial land on Point Douglas and use it as a showcase in innovative residential design, using resited historic houses mixed with new architectural styles?
  • Why do we have the beginnings of a $350-400 million Human Rights Museum in a city languishing in poverty and economic divide, but no museum of architecture among what could be the best preserved collection of late 19th century skyscrapers in the world?
  • Why are we not making piles of money off of alternative energy and alternative transportation when we have ALL of the advantages?
  • Why do we need to look on the loss of Greyhound as a crisis with no hint of opportunity?  There are dozens of innovations that could be used to create a better alternative to the current bus service, and not all of them would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
  • Why are we still not reaching our potential as the cultural and governance capital for aboriginals and indigenous peoples from all over the world?

With the NDP leadership change, there is only a small amount of buzz about the shifting political landscape in Manitoba.  The small number of comments I see on stories of provincial politics and leaders seems to show that Manitoba politics has been left mostly to the hobbyists, and that “mainstream” Manitoba tuned out years ago.  Most of the people I grew up with in south Winnipeg never even heard that I ran for political office, since they didn’t read the newspaper articles or watch the news on TV during the spring by-elections.  Some people I meet on the street in my neighbourhood know I ran for something, but can’t remember for what office or for which party.  Most Manitobans aren’t seeing much reason to give provincial politics any thought at all.

I don’t think this is a sign of laziness, or a sign that people are too busy.  I think it’s a sign that politics and politicians aren’t actually doing anything for Manitoba.  We’ve had ten years of economic growth and increasing revenues, but no grand accomplishments.  We’ve seen the rise and partial fall of Alberta and the troubles in Ontario, yet we’re not using our diversity and relative stability to move ahead of our neighbours… in fact, it’s likely that we’re falling further behind.  We’re seeing a record deficit in Ottawa, yet no one seems to be mentioning publicly how this could affect the 3.5 billion in total federal transfers that we’re receiving every year (over a third of our revenues).  Manitoba is mired in do nothing and status quo and good enough… and I know we’re better than that.

We need a psychological change in this province. We need to start realizing that we are squandering our children’s futures by our inaction.  We are letting crime and poverty and hopelessness spin out of control, as we sit back and wonder why the government hasn’t fixed things yet.  We are seeing our health care budget balloon while we notice very little improvement (and several big setbacks that have cost lives), yet we’re still letting our government use the same tired ideas that didn’t work ten years ago.   We are assuming that the government is doing something about the environment even though we have no reason to believe they’re doing anything.  We’re sitting by in small unorganized groups, waiting for the government to suddenly start changing the world for the better, which of course is something no government has never been able to do on its own.  Why aren’t we getting together and making some of these changes ourselves?  Why aren’t we looking at the innovations in other places, and demanding that they be considered here?

I don’t want my daughter deciding one day that she needs to move to another province in order to change the world.  We have many strong advantages (human resources, cost of living, power and water, agricultural and industrial diversity, mineral resources) that can put us at the forefront of progress if we just open up our minds a little… and dream of something better.

It’s about time I started acting on some of these dreams.

Note: I’ll be finishing up my next big Jewel of Winnipeg whenever I have a chance – Assiniboine Park.

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