With Jonah Levine
It’s taken Winnipeg a generation to get around to building the first leg of a rapid transit system. You might think that settles the matter, and that now we are down to inconsequential details. On closer examination, however, it becomes clear that many important decisions remain, decisions that could make the difference between a successful rapid transit system and a white elephant.
As members of the Winnipeg Rapid Transit Coalition, Jonah and I have been involved in discussions with transit officials and city politicians about the central issue of the system’s accessibility. The discussions have been cordial, but so far we have been unable to reach agreement on the question of whether the first leg of the southwest rapid transit corridor will be built in such a way as to enable cyclists and pedestrians to move safely back and forth between the South Osborne neighbourhood and downtown.
The rapid transit line will run parallel to a rail line, and, in the absence of a safe route over the rail line, there will be a gap in the first phase of the active transportation corridor which is to run parallel to the rapid transit line – a gap that will pose formidable obstacles, not only to pedestrians and cyclists, but to anyone trying to reach the rapid transit line from the other side of the rail line. The gap is illustrated and explained in detail here.
The response of city officials to our representations has been that the city cannot afford an overpass, which will cost $14 million, according to one estimate. The WRTC argues, and I agree, that $14 million, though it is indeed a lot of money, is not a great deal in comparison with the cost of a rapid transit system that falls short of its potential.
At the heart of our disagreement is a question that’s both simple and fraught with significance: Is rapid transit just a cost or is it also an opportunity? Unquestionably it is a cost. The transit line, and the associated active transportation corridor offer:
•Improved mobility for many Winnipeggers who cannot afford cars, or prefer not to use them unnecessarily
•Reduced pollution and greenhouse gas generation
•A beachhead in the battle against sprawl, and against Winnipeggers’ currently all-but-total dependence on cars for much of their transportation
These are public benefits that cost money, but that make Winnipeg, in many ways, a better city. In all of this, there is no serious disagreement between the WRTC and the city. Our disagreement with the overall direction of city policy is in the degree to which we see rapid transit, not only as the price of civility and environmental sanity, but also as a major development opportunity. Our argument is that a properly constructed rapid transit system yields development opportunities that can generate enough revenue to dwarf the costs of the access on which that revenue will depend.
To a degree, city leaders understand this, but so far they fail to grasp its full significance. Their comprehension of the concept of a rapid transit system as a development opportunity is evident in the fact that the first leg of the system will be financed by a tif, short for tax increment financing – financing out of future revenues. The transit line will be paid for out of the revenue that will be generated by the Fort Rouge Yards neighbourhood, a new neighbourhood on currently empty land that will be served by the rapid transit system.
In other words, the transit line produces development opportunities, and the tax revenues that those opportunities generate will pay off the money borrowed to build the line. What the city seems not to have grasped fully is that the primarily residential South Osborne neighbourhood is only the tip of the potential development iceberg.
If the city provided for access across the rail line, a world of additional development opportunities would open up along the adjacent east side of Pembina Highway. Currently, that stretch of land is home to a strip of relatively low-density commercial development, a lot of surface parking and, apparently, a significant proportion of empty land. The character of this area is suburban rather than urban, and as Winnipeg develops, it becomes increasingly inappropriate to a location so near the city centre, and the quintessentially urban neighbourhoods of Osborne Village, Corydon Village and the South Osborne neighbourhood.
With ready access to a rapid transit line, well connected to the centre of the city and the University of Winnipeg, and later to the University of Manitoba as well, that land could be redeveloped into a much higher density commercial development, or some mix of commercial and residential development. The revenues that could be generated by such development would dwarf the cost of overpasses. As a bonus, the additional riders transit would get would improve the viability of the transit system as a whole.
My central point is really very simple: It’s crazy to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a rapid transit line and then to slash its potential benefits in order to save a few millions.
This entry is an expanded version of a recently-published newspaper article:
Christopher Leo and Jonah Levine, Let’s Not Skimp on Rapid Transit. Winnipeg Free Press, 5 July 2009. Accessible at http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/westview/lets-not-skimp-on-rapid-transit-49971382.html, down-loaded 5 July 2009.
Scholarly research on transit-oriented development:
A veritable gold mine of information is available at the web site of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.
Hank Dittmar and Gloria Ohland, The New Transit Town: Best Practices in Transit-Oriented Development. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2003.
Kenneth J. Dueker. A Critique of the Urban Transportation Planning Process: The Performance of Portland’s 2000 Regional Transportation Plan. Transportation Quarterly 56 (2), pp. 15-21.
John Renne and Peter Newman (2002). Facilitating the Financing and Development of ‘Smart Growth’ Transportation Quarterly, 56 (2), 23-32