Monday September 01, 2014

Spinning our wheels on the supergrids


There are times when it very much feels like — even when we are moving forward — we’re still spinning our wheels.

Take Highways Minister Don McMorris’s recent announcement of a pilot project that will convert thin-membrane surface (TMS) paved highways into supergrid roads that will better accommodate heavy oil tanker and grain haul traffic.

It’s a very good idea.

The idea of these “supergrids” — wider and stronger grids capable of withstanding the heavier truck traffic than thin membrane surface (TMS) or regular grid roads — was unveiled in the March 19 budget.

“What we’re doing is we’re starting more or less from scratch and we’re engineering the road to be a strong base that will carry primary weight,” McMorris explained.

The new initiative will begin with two pilot projects totalling about 37 kilometres — 31 kilometres of Highway 361 from the junction of Highway 9 east to Alida and 5.5 kilometres of Highway 47 about 20 kilometres north of Stoughton. Oil tankers have been particularly brutal on these roads.

“It’s been in bad shape for about 20 years and it’s getting worse and worse,” Dennis Hull, councillor for the RM of Alida, recently told reporters.

Costing about $400,000 a kilometre, that will total $14.8 million for the 37 kilometres , supergrids are about half the normal paving cost.

If successful, McMorris suspects a much higher portion of the provincial highways budget — $664.5 million in 2014-15 — will be going to supergrids in the future. And given that both Manitoba and Alberta have already had success with supergrids, there`s every reason to believe they will be successful.

But all this begs another important question: Why wasn`t this done before?

Well, you may recall that there similar notions put forward 20 years ago by an NDP government desperate to save cash and deal with the debt left behind by the Progressive Conservatives.

Around in 1993 when then-NDP highways minister Berny Wiens first contemplated “turning highways back to gravel”.

You also might remember the vehement opposition at the time, strictly based on the notion that this would be a step backwards.

Admittedly, the talk at the time from the NDP government wasn’t about a better alternative to the TMS highways — a bad idea in the first place that showed little foresight.

Many will also remember that period as one where rural Saskatchewan was already angry with the then Roy Romanow government for breaking the Gross Revenue Insurance Plan (GRIP) contracts with farmers and closing 52 rural hospitals. So even if Wiens had a better, bolder plan at the time, rural Saskatchewan was certainly in no mood to listen.

But maybe that’s one of the big problems in this province — one of the things that held Saskatchewan back for so many years.

Yes, rural Saskatchewan has ample reason to criticize the New Democratic government of the past. By the end of its 16-year run, the NDP felt no need to either field serious candidates or campaign in the rural areas.

But we all know that rural Saskatchewan has never looked to the NDP — or any governing party in Regina, for that matter — for its leadership.

Surely, sometime in the 16 years of NDP leadership or the last seven years of Sask. Party governance, someone from the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities could have championed an idea like supergrids. And, surely, any government would have supported, if it saved costs.

But as big a problem as it is to get governments to listen, getting local leadership to think beyond the confines to the township might be an even bigger problem.

And in a growing, changing province, we do need to think differently.

Unfortunately, as has been the case with the supergrids, we are sometimes just spinning our wheels.

Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.



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