Weather, budgets and lack of political will: Why Winnipeg roads are still pockmarked

A Winnipeg expert in roads says more can be done to improve the city's pothole-ridden streets, and keep them in better shape for a longer period of time.

City has pledged $525M for infrastructure in 2022, but old roads, new developments mean money won't go far

A vehicle splashes through water as it drives over a pothole.
A car splashes through muddy water in a pothole on Goulet Street in Winnipeg. Potholes are opening up across the city as the ground freezes and thaws. (Trevor Lyons/Radio-Canada)

A Winnipeg expert in roads says more can be done to improve Manitoba's pothole-ridden streets, and keep them in better shape for a longer period of time, but it would require more money in the budget for infrastructure costs.

City of Winnipeg crews are patching 700 potholes a day with temporary fixes ahead of road construction season. But Ahmed Shalaby, a professor of civil engineering who specializes in pavement design and highway materials, says the interim fixes are just Band-Aids.

"We have a stock of roads that are at the end of their service life, or approaching the end of their service life, and at some point it becomes not cost-effective to use the same old techniques to fill more and more potholes," he said.

Part of the issue is planning, said Shalaby, who leads the U of M's Pavement Research Group, which focuses on analyzing pavement structures, materials and systems.

The majority of roads in the province were built in the last 50 or 60 years.

"Things that were designed a long time ago, they were never designed for the level of traffic we have today, the types of vehicles we have today. The demand on these roads have changed over time," he said.

"When we go into a phase of rebuilding and reconstructing, this has to be also considered."

A man in a suit speaks to someone off-camera.
Ahmed Shalaby is a professor of civil engineering at the University of Manitoba. (CBC)

But infrastructure renewal is a challenge for all municipalities, Shalaby said.

"The cost that goes with this is quite significant and the municipalities really operate on fixed budgets for road repairs, so the problem is growing at a faster rate than the budgets are growing."

Shalaby says there's a backlog of roads that need renewal, and the City of Winnipeg and the province have been catching up, but it's a problem that continues to grow, especially as the city sprawls.

"No matter how much catching up you can do, it's still exceeding what you can plan for, and also the public expectations are higher," he said.

That includes adding active transportation routes, as well as meeting newer and better standards, he said.

Shalaby's lab is looking for better ways to build and maintain roads, including testing new materials to the breaking point. That includes looking at possible solutions like mixing plastic waste with asphalt.

He says the city has taken the lab up on some, but not all, of its innovations.

"Road construction in general is a very conservative business and no one is willing to take a risk they do not need to take. And sometimes there is also very little reward for innovation," Shalaby said.

33,000 potholes patched

St. Boniface Coun. Matt Allard, the chair of Winnipeg's infrastructure and public works committee, says in his time in office, he's never seen potholes as bad as this year's.

The city said in a statement on Tuesday it has patched 33,000 since January, but some have had to be repatched.

Allard says city council has pledged $525 million for infrastructure in 2022, thanks to help from the provincial and federal governments, but agrees with Shalaby that those improvements won't happen overnight.

"The real solution is to fix the roads.... At some point we'll catch up and things will get better, but despite this council spending a lot on roads, there's a lot of work to do," he said in a Wednesday interview with CBC Manitoba's Up to Speed.

Coun. Matt Allard says the City of Winnipeg is committed to improving infrastructure, including fixing potholes like this one, but road issues have snowballed in the last several years. (CBC)

Allard says council is open to innovation and knows Winnipeggers expect more of their infrastructure.

A quick hop across the border into North Dakota can look like a whole different world.

Shalaby says municipal and state governments there are building roads that are thicker, with higher-quality materials, and replacing them before their condition deteriorates too far.

"They're much better quality at their end of life than our roads are. We accept our roads to deteriorate to a level that they would not accept," he said.

However, Shalaby says the comparison to Manitoba isn't fair, because the governments in North Dakota have far more money in their budgets to cover such repairs. The U.S. also considers infrastructure maintenance a key part of its national security, he says.

Even so, the civil engineer hopes for a future with smoother streets here.

"I think we're seeing the difference being made. We're seeing improvement in the quality of the designs and construction," he said.

"That's not to say that more cannot be done. Definitely more can be done. And we hope to be able to be part of that work when it's done."

Winnipeg roadways riddled with potholes

1 year ago
Duration 2:03
A Winnipeg expert says more can be done to improve the city's pothole-ridden streets, and keep them in better shape for a longer period of time.

With files from Emily Brass and Laurie Hoogstraten