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Too many roads or too few people?

REGINA, Sask. - Although he declined to choose a preference, a University of Manitoba professor says there are only four options for government decision-makers to consider for improving rural prairie ...

REGINA, Sask. – Although he declined to choose a preference, a University of Manitoba professor says there are only four options for government decision-makers to consider for improving rural prairie infrastructure.

Barry Prentice of the University of Manitoba’s Transport Institute says governments have difficult decisions ahead regarding the future of thin membrane surface (TMS) roads, which were never meant to withstand the increasing load and distance of today’s grain hauling operations.

Speaking at the Rural Canada: Moving Forward or Left Behind Conference, organized by the Saskatchewan Institute of Public Policy, in Regina on Nov. 23, Prentice said the problem is particularly acute in Saskatchewan, which has more than 180,000km of rural public highway.

TMS roads were introduced in the 1950s as a cost-effective method to develop dust-, mud- and stone-free road surfaces. Consisting of a thin layer of road-mixed gravel and asphalt applied directly to the sub-grade. The public demand for TMS roads grew considerably during the ’60s and ’70s and governments were eager to implement this new technology. While these roads increased economic development, they did not improve the structural capabilities of the roadbed.

So when the 1980s arrived and the tri-axle group was introduced on a widespread basis as part of the National Memorandum on Vehicle Weights and Dimensions, TMS roads experienced weights they couldn’t support. This, with elevator and rail line consolidation, has had a tremendous impact on the roads.

Experience has shown TMS roads can deteriorate quickly under concentrated hauls. A road able to handle 10-15 trucks a day over a two-week period will fail if the same level of traffic is concentrated over two or three days.

As well, TMS roads are highly sensitive to water content. It can only take six hours of a light rainfall to change the strength of these roads so they can only handle a few passes of loaded trucks before failing.

Increased tire pressure also leads to road failure. Trucks with lower tire pressure can make more passes before failure, and in the past most farm vehicles had tires with 65 psi tire pressure. Most grain haul vehicles run pressures of 100 psi today.

“Overall, grain hauled by truck on a tonne-kilometre basis in Saskatchewan is currently 17 times what it was in the early 1970s when TMS roads were being introduced on a widespread basis. This is projected to increase to a factor of 30 under a future consolidation scenario of 60 delivery points,” explains Prentice.

The consequences of this consolidation are enormous. The present value of upgrading and maintenance costs in Saskatchewan is $184 million. This figure will skyrocket to $500 million when the consolidation is complete, and this estimate only includes hauls from the farm to the elevator; it doesn’t include inter-elevator movement or delivery to another processing facility.

So what should the government do? Prentice says the first option is to, “do nothing, which means converting the TMS roads to gravel.”

The second option is to prohibit railway branch line abandonment and to continue subsidizing short line railways.

“This maintains the communities’ tax base, but it also leads to a duplication of the transportation infrastructure,” says Prentice. He adds communities have been requesting subsidies and other assistance to develop short lines, but in many cases this approach only eases the wear and tear on the roads and doesn’t solve the overall problem.

The third option is to abandon certain roads and create a strategic network. “There is an immediate cost reduction, but it may increase haul distance,” says Prentice. New transportation technology, such as central tire inflation, may assist with this approach, as trucks will be able to change their tire pressure based on the roads. The downside is that there will be considerable costs involved to adopt this technology and it would be difficult to ensure compliance on the different roadways.

The fourth option is to obtain a legitimate share of infrastructure cash from the federal government.

“The federal government has cut its expenditures in transportation dramatically,” says Prentice. “It might be appropriate to spend more of the ‘sin’ taxes on the roads.”

Prentice says there is a risk the Prairies may end up with less-than-optimum grain transportation.

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