Winnipegger’s effort to replace hundreds of missing signs in school zones thwarted by public works department
CAUTION: apathy zone
RED LIGHT GREEN LIGHT NO OVERSIGHT
A Free Press investigation into the city's transportation division
IT was sometime in 2011 when Christian Sweryda, an independent researcher and traffic-safety activist, started to notice locations where school-zone signs were missing in Winnipeg.
He began to count the places where they should have been installed. When his list hit 30, he contacted the transportation division of the public works department to flag the issue.
Sweryda said based on how many signs were missing just in his area, there were likely hundreds more around the city. He suggested someone do an inventory.
Someone in the department told Sweryda it would not do a count, but would replace missing signs on a case-by-case basis. They told him to stop calling and instead contact 311.
Sweryda had a deep fascination with traffic-related issues inWinnipeg and began looking into a range of safety concerns.
His research— which has uncovered evidence of financial mismanagement in the public works department and triggered an audit — is the subject of the Free Press investigative series Red Light, Green Light, No Oversight.
After the department rebuffed his efforts, Sweryda decided to take the matter into his own hands. He compiled a list of all city schools, both public and private, and used Google Street View to check every location for missing signs.
He spent the next six months driving to the locations to verify his findings. He compiled a 73-page list of every sign location in the city and flagged each spot where one was missing.
He noted undersized signs, misplaced signs and school-zone signs on streets with no schools. All told, there were 206missing school-zone signs.
Sweryda took the list to the department and asked for the problem to be addressed. He was told it wouldn’t be.
“I was floored,” he said. “I hadn’t grown cynical yet.”
In November 2012, Sweryda got the National Post to do an article on the topic. It profiled one location, near John Pritchard School onHenderson Highway, where school-zone signs were missing.
Sweryda thought the media coverage would force the department to act. Instead, the missing signs at John Pritchard were replaced, but the city ignored hundreds of locations elsewhere.
A freedom-of-information request revealed the signs were replaced only after the River East Transcona School Division complained to the city after reading the National Post story.
In late November 2012, former city councillor Harvey Smith set up a meeting with Sweryda and department staff. He again produced the list and, this time, he was told they would “assess each location” on it.
At the time there were discussions about lowering the speed limit in school zones to 30 kilometres per hour. Sweryda was told it made no sense for department workers to replace all the missing signs if they were going to have to repeat the work after a speed-limit reduction.
The argument, at least to him, was nonsensical: while refusing to replace missing school-zone signs — a safety issue — they were saying they wanted to reduce speed limits to improve safety.
In 2014, the speed limit in school zones was reduced, but only on residential streets adjacent to elementary schools— where only a small minority of the missing signs were located. Many more were on major roads, or roads approaching schools or at high schools.
The only signs the department replaced were those affected by the lower speed limit. In 2015, Sweryda repeated his inventory and found there were 173 signs missing; only 33 of the 206 he’d initially identified had been replaced. Many were on major roads with high traffic volumes and increased safety risks.
At that point, Sweryda gave up. He’d done what he could to get the department to act.
But his concerns remained, and by 2018 he was back on it, and this time he teamed up with Coun. Matt Allard, who chairs the public works committee. That year, Allard (St. Boniface) moved a motion asking for a civic report on missing school-zone signs.
In November 2018, the department was granted 180 days to report back on the matter. In May 2019, the timeline was pushed to October. Then in November, an extension was again granted, followed by yet another in February 2020.
The department requested additional funding to create a database and GPS monitoring system for the signs. But the proposal for the additional funding was not approved.
Once again, Sweryda couldn’t make sense of the department staff’s logic. They didn’t want to replace the missing signs he’d catalogued until they’d developed an internal GPS system that could keep track of missing-sign locations in the future.
In the fall of 2021, Allard took the matter up with the department again. This time, public works department director Jim Berezowsky said he would get someone on it.
And once again, Sweryda’s list of missing school-zone signs was provided.
“I have been working for years asking the public service to address missing school-zone and playground signage as researched by Chris Sweryda, through council motions and communications. Unfortunately, many issues remain outstanding,” Allard said.
On Thursday, the city said in a statement it is in the process of reviewing Sweryda’s submitted information “in order to determine exact locations where signs may need to be repaired or replaced. We would attend to any locations where signage is in fact missing as quickly as possible.”
Sweryda shares an anecdote that sums up his frustrating battle.
The signs near John Pritchard School on Henderson Highway— which were replaced after the 2012 National Post story— were ones Sweryda drove by every day on his way to class at the University of Manitoba.
Month after month, he watched as the school-zone sign on northbound HendersonHighway began to lean, seemingly a little more each time he passed it. On Oct. 31, 2016, it fell to the ground.
It was left on the sidewalk until the following summer, and then it vanished.
It had not been replaced by December 2018, so Sweryda wrote an email to David Patman, manager of transportation for the public works department.
If he couldn’t get public works to replace all of the missing signs, surely he would be successful at one spot he passed all the time.
Or so he thought. “I have a staff member who can review and act on missing signs; I will forward this to her. Note that we are in the process of developing a plan to inventory and update all signage in Winnipeg,” Patman wrote in response Dec. 23, 2018.
By April 3, 2021, nothing had been done.
Sweryda emailed Patman again. “Considering that it has been over 27 months since that correspondence, I wanted to inquire as to whether there has been any progress in putting this sign back up?” he wrote.
Patman responded three days later. “This appears to have fallen through the cracks, but as of this morning, I have been advised that traffic services is going to inspect the site promptly and will reinstall the sign if it is missing,” he wrote.
That was 10 months ago. The sign is still missing, as are hundreds of others.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @rk_thorpe