Does Winnipeg have to kiss rapid transit good-bye? A twisted tale

The seemingly endless rapid transit debates in Winnipeg have taken a strange turn. Mayor Sam Katz, who began as a firm rapid transit opponent, relented in 2008 when he and former premier Gary Doer announced the Southwest Rapid Transit Corridor, connecting downtown to the University of Manitoba. As recently as 2009, a second leg of the rapid transit system, eastward to Transcona, was on the city’s wish list of infrastructure improvements.

Many Winnipeggers have probably concluded that, after more than 30 years of dithering, a rapid transit system is finally a done deal. That conception may have been reinforced by Mayor Katz’s more recent declarations that he would prefer a much more expensive rail system to the bus rapid transit line now under construction.

Before you stand and cheer,

remember that the city has only committed itself to the first half of the first rapid transit line, and take a look at the rest of Katz’s statement. He wants to spend the money earmarked for construction of the second half of the first rapid transit line on roads instead.

Say what? He wants a much more expensive system, but he also intends to divert rapid transit money to roads? No problem, the Mayor says. We can have both rapid transit and roads. He offers no suggestions as to how that might be accomplished, beyond the suggestion that the federal government might be persuaded to pay for it. The federal government, however, wants Winnipeg to finish the southwest line, not spend the money on roads.

If the money is diverted to roads, we will be left with an amputated half-leg of a rapid transit line, in effect a line to nowhere. A complete rapid transit line can draw new passengers to transit and provide lucrative new opportunities for development near the transit stations. New development increases the city’s revenues and can turn transit into a paying proposition. A half rapid transit line has little potential to draw either passengers or development.

Money spent on half a rapid transit line is money wasted. Dreams of future rail lines are no substitute for an actual rapid transit line now, but, for more than 30 years, our experience has been that whenever it seems within reach, it slips just beyond our grasp.

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