A recent editorial by my colleagues at the Regina Leader-Post took square aim at the sorry state of the province’s highways and rural roads — an issue that really wasn’t supposed to be an issue under this Saskatchewan Party government.
“Despite throwing record amounts of money at the problem, the Saskatchewan Party government is still a country mile short of satisfying public demands to do more,” the editorial stated.
There is no question the Sask. Party government has thrown a lot of more money at the problem than the NDP did.
Back in the day when the former NDP government was clawing its way out of the deficit/debt mess left behind by the Progressive Conservatives, it was rural roads that paid the price.
Highways spending in 1993-94 — you will recall that as the year Roy Romanow government closed 52 rural hospitals — was slashed to $180.7 million.
The budget for the department only increased to $232.3 million by 1998-99 and then to $293.7 million by 2003-04.
It was about 2003-04 where the province’s economic fortunes took the dramatic upswing we are still seeing today. But that wasn’t necessarily reflected in highway department spending under the NDP that was $307.3 million in 2006-07 (the last full year of an NDP budget) and $360.2 million in 2007-08 (the election year in which highways spending coincidentally peaks and when the Sask. Party took over).
Since the arrival of Premier Brad Wall’s government, highways spending has skyrocketed: 2008-09, $485.3 million; 2009-10, $422.5 million; 2010-11, $433.4 million; 2011-12, $457.5 million; 2012-13, $436.4 million, and; budgeted for the current fiscal year of 2013-14, $523.3 million.
In other words, Wall’s government has consistently spent between $120- to $150 million more a year on highways than the NDP government did in its best and last full year of government. The current government is also spending nearly two and half times more on roads than the NDP did in its worst years two decades ago.
Yet while the roads are likely marginally better overall than they were in the NDP days, they aren’t anywhere close to public expectations.
As the recent Leader-Post editorial went on to point out, CAA Saskatchewan’s “Worst Roads” campaign saw more than 3,000 “votes” for the “winner”, Hwy. 22 near Earl Grey.
But lest anyone think this is strictly a rural issue, Regina’s Ring Road — qualifying for provincial funding as urban highway connector — finished sixth. The city is complaining there is only funding for patching and pothole repair.
The editorial goes on to note that with some “26,000 kilometres of provincial highways, including 5,400 thin-membrane surface highways, to maintain” the province is fighting a losing battle.
At a cost of $800,000 to $1 million to upgrade just one kilometre of TMS to quality as a highway and $1.5 million to build just one kilometre of new highway “the province can’t provide pristine pavement to everyone’s door,” the editorial concludes.
This is true. But it’s also true that in a growing province, demands will continue to increase. More highways are being twinned. Also, the proposed multiple-hundred-million-dollar Regina by-pass project is now scheduled to be the most expensive highway undertaking in the province’s history.
Obviously, even more money is needed. The question is: Where does it come from, when we are barely squeaking by with surpluses now?
Toll roads don’t work in a jurisdiction like ours. Perhaps heavy users — the oil and mining sectors, farm and commercial semis and recreational vehicles — do need to better reflect the cost reality of the damage they cause through their vehicle licensing.
Of course, this is not a popular notion. It may just be that the money will have to come from elsewhere in the budget.
But one way or the other, Sask. Party government is going to have to find ways to address the problem of our rough roads.
Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.