Sunday, August 19, 2007

Highway 75 Part 1

Highway 75 is the main link between Winnipeg and the border and the crossing at Emerson, Manitoba. It is the eighth busiest crossing in Canada to the U.S. and for many years it was the most neglected.

It took decades to double the amount of lanes despite it being the most important route for international trade in the province. After the road was doubled, it sat neglected and deteriorating until the NDP found out in a poll that revealed people were dissatisfied with the roads in the province.

Dozens of announcements were made thereafter on road construction and the NDP were able to nip the anger many people in Manitoba felt about shoddy roads and bridges. I guess it just became too much to hear the same announcement year after year that the final 20 or so kilometres from Austin to the Saskatchewan border were going to be paved and see nothing happening. This year, to save from the embarrassment of Saskatchewan finishing off their portion the Trans-Canada, there is actual work being done to complete the stretch before the snow flies.

In that same vein, you can see sections of road like the Perimeter Highway finally being worked on after years of promises.

In terms of provincial highways, Highway 75 probably ranks near the top (if not the top) in importance. It has been woefully neglected after many years. Flood damage had made the surface a ripple of bumps that sent loads inside trucks flying. The concrete and asphalt in many sections was crumbling and in such poor shape that traffic had no choice but to slow down to safely traverse it according to media reports in 2006.

In 2007, construction all along Highway 75 is evident. It would appear that it isn't just an asphalt overlay either. In one stretch that I drove on a few weeks ago, there was both a paved shoulder and median paved section. At the moment, that type of style is the exception, not the rule. Most of the shoulder is made of gravel (unlike U.S. Interstates).

One year of construction is not going to solve all the problems of Highway 75 over night. The NDP shouldn't let their recent electoral win be a sign they should go back to sleep on infrastructure. I think that the length of time it took to double the lanes in the past by NDP governments was a result of anti-American attitudes coupled with an unwillingness to do infrastructure work on relatively safe Tory ridings. I think some NDPers had no wish to improve a highway for what they thought were shoppers heading towards Grand Forks and Fargo.

There are several remaining areas of concern when it comes to Highway 75. One of them is Morris, Manitoba. The highway passes right through this small town and traffic has to slow down as it rumbles over some of the worst stretch of road in many kilometres.

A by-pass around this town should be undertaken as soon as possible. For a highway as busy as Highway 75, it isn't safe nor serve an economic purpose having traffic slow down and even stop there at traffic lights.

Morris has never really taken advantage of the highway coming through. Unlike Steinbach, Winkler and Altona, the town has not shown any particular entrepreneurial spirit. It's main attraction is the Manitoba Stampede. It isn't a bad attraction but for years the town has done little to do anything to take advantage of being on a major highway. In the last years, only a motel and a service station have been built. With apologies to Morris, the town seems stagnant. One can well imagine what Steinbach would have done given the same geographic location on the same highway.

There are other instances all along Highway 75 where the lack of controlled access is an invitation to an accident. The government, at the very least, should begin to identify these problem areas and set a timetable for building overpasses. Highway 75 should be an almost seamless connection to Interstate 29 in North Dakota. The economic vitality of Manitoba depends on moving people and products along this highway swiftly and safely.

In terms of tourism, I have no complaints about the Manitoba Tourist office at Emerson. It carries everything someone would need for travel to Canada. It could probably do with some added attractions and longer hours but it is an huge improvement on what existed before which was nothing.

Similarly, the Duty Free store in Emerson serves a need and is done well.

From a purely cosmetic and safety perspective, the entire highway should have a consistent billboard policy. There are still the occasional trailer sign backed up into a farmer's field with multi-coloured letters on it. They look awful and are difficult to read. Several other billboards are tattered and not in use. A smart government would rid the highway and sight lines around it of these battered billboards and only authorize billboards in certain areas. I always wonder how it is the state like North Dakota are able to do this and even light their signs and yet in Manitoba, we have ramshackle, unlit signs strewn about. It really comes down to a lack of caring about appearances and a lack of effort in proper promotion.

The entire stretch of Highway 75 should be thought of as a portal. For those entering Manitoba, it should be a swift, safe and smart looking highway that builds excitement for the driver about coming to Winnipeg or heading to other destinations. For those leaving the city and heading south, it should be the ideal road to send goods or to travel to southern Manitoba and beyond.

The province can't afford to ignore this key highway the way it has over the last several years. Hopefully, construction started this year will continue into the next years.

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