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Bus constables, later transit hours among ideas floated in mayoral debate

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Special constables on buses to keep Winnipeg Transit riders safe. Later transit hours to get drunk people home from the bar safely during the wee hours of the morning.

These are among the novel ideas floated by Mayor Sam Katz and challenger Judy Wasylycia-Leis tonight at a candidates’ forum on downtown issues — the fifth mayoral forum or debate of the 2010 civic election campaign.

But little in the way of new promises emerged during the two-hour event in the atrium of Portage Avenue’s Manitoba Hydro building.

The only concrete promise involved a Wasylycia-Leis pledge to get rid of the concrete barriers that have prevented pedestrians from crossing Winnipeg’s most famous intersection for 31 years.

The former Winnipeg North MP promised to open up Portage and Main to pedestrians if she’s elected mayor on Oct. 27.

The intersection is barred to pedestrian traffic until the year 2016, according to a deal with seven adjacent property owners.

Former Winnipeg mayors Susan Thompson and Glen Murray both vowed to remove the barriers. In 2005, after Katz became mayor, Winnipeg's Corbett Cibinel Architects and Toronto's Janet Rosenberg & Associates came up with a $10.5-million plan to remodel the intersection, after winning a Murray-era design contest.

In 2007, a more detailed version of their plan called for the concrete barriers to be replaced by movable bollards that would allow pedestrians to cross during evenings and weekends. But only six out of seven property owners approved the plan.

The final holdout was Oxford Properties, the former owner of Winnipeg Square and the Commodity Exchange Tower. It sold the underground mall and office building in 2007, but new owner Crown Realty Partners has not expressed any interest in removing the barriers.

Following the forum, Wasylycia-Leis promised to "sit down and try to work this through" in an effort to get some value out of the former city study. She said the city should get some value of of the previous study, which cost $130,000.

Katz, who has expressed reluctance to the idea of renegotiating this or any other contract, said the 2007 city report was not entirely accurate. 

Only four Portage & Main property owners were truly enthusiastic about removing the barriers, while two others were merely willing to go along with the majority, he said.

But for the first time, Katz also said he might look into the intersection if he’s elected to a third term later this month.

"Evenings and weekends are a reasonable compromise," he said, referring to the times when most of the retail outlets in the underground portion of Winnipeg’s weather-protected walkway are closed.

The mayor also said this does not seem to be an issue for many Winnipeggers.

Katz and Wasylycia-Leis both told the Manitoba Hydro building audience they liked an idea put forward by an audience member who wondered why Winnipeg Transit does not have its own version of the police. 

Wasylycia-Leis also said transit hours should be extended to ensure intoxicated people find a safe ride home. But she did not promise to extend the hours and no cost was associated with the idea.

The mayoral candidates meet next at a forum on cultural issues on Oct. 12.

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