Four years ago this winter, senior city official Phil Sheegl -- now the city's chief administrative officer -- paid a visit to the Free Press office in the basement of city hall to engage in a blue-sky conversation about transportation.
Pointing to a map, the enthusiastic new city manager outlined how an eastern extension of Sterling Lyon Parkway could link up with Taylor Avenue and Pembina Highway, eliminating the need to build the costly Waverley Street railway underpass. Almost as an afterthought, Sheegl mentioned the vacant city area known as the Parker lands could also house a rapid-transit corridor.
What's now known as the Parker dogleg is the leading means of extending the Southwest Transitway from its current terminus at Jubilee Avenue, all the way to the University of Manitoba's Fort Garry campus. But Sheegl didn't invent this idea.
Winnipeg Transit officials were already eyeing the Parker lands as a possible alignment for a busway that had languished in the planning phase since 1976. Those ideas turned into engineering in 2008, when the $138-million first phase of the Southwest Transitway was announced.
There is no deal yet to build Phase 2, which may cost as much as $350 million. Before that happens, the city must approve the alignment.
That will happen on March 20, when council considers a Winnipeg Transit recommendation to run the transitway through the Parker lands and down a Manitoba Hydro corridor, rather than closer to Pembina Highway along CN Rail's Letellier line.
In July 2011, Mayor Sam Katz tentatively endorsed the indirect route through vacant land, based on the opinion of rapid-transit experts, who believe corridors can pay for themselves by stimulating commercial and residential construction.
"They will tell you one of the criteria for deciding the priority route is where you can create extra development," the mayor said.
In city-planning parlance, this is called transit-oriented development. But what's unusual about the Parker dogleg is the line runs along empty corridors. That makes the notion of generating tax dollars a less-than-automatic prospect, according to a U.S. transit expert.
"Without even looking at the line in question, I can tell you it's a risk. Whenever you run a line though an undeveloped area, it's going to be risky, but there is also the potential for rewards," said Ron Fisher, formerly with the U.S. Federal Transportation Administration, in an interview in 2011.
A high-level of study of Southwest Transitway alignment options, however, concludes there is more development potential along the Parker dogleg. Dillon Consulting and Stevenson Advisors determined development along the dogleg could result in $153 million worth of additional property-tax revenues versus only $53 million along the route closer to Pembina Highway.
The Dillon/Stevenson study also notes the Parker route would have fewer road crossings, require fewer property expropriations and have room for bridges and bike trails. As a result, Winnipeg Transit recommended this route, which council's public works committee approved earlier this week.
Despite some opposition, council approval appears to be a fait accompli. "We know we're looking for opportunities for development, we know we don't want to cross a whole lot of intersections... and we don't want to expropriate a great deal of land," Katz said earlier this week. "By the same token, I don't think we can automatically assume cheapest is the best."
Based on what has been disclosed and what the Dillon/Stevenson study concluded, here's what's known about the two possible alignments, which follow the same path south of Plaza Drive:
The Parker dogleg
Route: West from Pembina Highway alongside Parker Avenue, then south along the Manitoba Hydro right-of-way that separates the Fort Garry Industrial Park from the Beaumont and Maybank neighbourhoods. Then south along the CN Rail's Letellier line to Bison Drive, with connectivity to the University of Manitoba campus to be determined later.
Length: Seven kilometres.
Maximum speed: 80 km/h.
New infrastructure required (Jubilee Avenue to Plaza Drive): One bridge over Pembina Highway and a pair of rail underpasses near Jubilee Avenue; one long rail overpass at Sugar Beet lands south of Chevrier Boulevard; five new rapid-transit stations. Potential bridges or underpasses at both Hurst Way and McGillivray Boulevard.
Street crossings (Jubilee to Plaza): Four in total. New traffic signals required at Hurst Way in Parker lands and at McGillivray Boulevard, unless the city builds bridges or underpasses; transit-priority gates required at Clarence Avenue and Chevrier Boulevard.
Projected cost: $292 million without the Hurst and McGillivray grade separations; $333 million with these two bridges and underpasses.
Transit-service impact on immediate area: Less service for existing businesses and apartments near Pembina Highway. Feeder-connection possibilities for Linden Woods and Whyte Ridge.
Active transportation: Sufficient room for a bike-and-pedestrian trail to be built alongside the corridor.
Land complications: Negotiations required for access to Manitoba Hydro right-of-way. The route would also require protection of major water and sewer pipes.
Estimated land-acquisition costs: Up to $9.2 million.
Natural habitat impact: Associated development could affect high-quality aspen parkland in the Parker area.
Development impact: Greater potential for residential and commercial development along the new corridor, especially in the Parker lands, according to the Dillon/Stevenson study.
Potential increase in ridership: Higher than the direct route, according to the study, mainly due to the potential for development in the Parker lands and transit connections to Linden Woods and Whyte Ridge.
City council opinion: Couns. Dan Vandal (St. Boniface), Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry), Brian Mayes (St. Vital) and Devi Sharma (Old Kildonan) voted in favour of the dogleg at the committee level.
Manitoba Hydro opinion: The provincial Crown corporation will never sell its land but is amenable to a transit right-of-way. Manitoba Hydro also needs to relocate two lines within the next five years, budget permitting, and "this work would need to be carried out prior to any work on the transitway." Furthermore, transit stations on the right-of-way must be small. The City of Winnipeg would be on the hook for any transit tower relocations.
CN Rail opinion: A two-year lead time is required to relocate the Letellier line and its own work must be complete before the city begins work on the rapid-transit corridor. This is less of a big deal for this alignment, as a smaller portion of CN's tracks would be affected.
Developer opinion: Shindico Realty, which owns nearby land, "questions density opportunities along Manitoba Hydro corridor" and cautions the city about the time it will take to conclude land negotiations with the provincial Crown corporation. Shindico noted it took 18 years to negotiate Taylor Avenue land deals with Manitoba Hydro. Gem Equities, which owns the nearby Parker lands, does not care which alignment is chosen.
The direct route
Route: South along CN Rail's Letellier line, west of Pembina Highway, with connectivity to the University of Manitoba campus to be determined later.
Length: Six kilometres
Maximum speed: 60 km/h north of McGillivray Boulevard, 80 km/h south of McGillivray.
New infrastructure required (Jubilee Avenue to Plaza Drive): One bridge over Pembina Highway near Jubilee Avenue.
Street crossings (Jubilee to Plaza): Nine in total. New traffic signal required at McGillivray Boulevard; transit-priority gates required at Byng Place, Windermere Avenue, Somerset Avenue, Waterford Avenue, Southwood Avenue, Waller Avenue, Clarence Avenue and Chevrier Boulevard.
Projected cost: $313 million.
Transit-service impact on immediate area: Improved service for neighbourhoods near Pembina Highway.
Active transportation: No room for a bike-and-pedestrian path along Letellier line.
Land complications: Negotiations required to relocate CN Letellier line nine metres west. Potential for expropriating portions of residential properties.
Estimated land-acquisition costs: $40.7 million.
Natural habitat impact: None
Development impact: Less potential for increased density, according to the Dillon/Stevenson study.
Potential increase in ridership: Lower than the dogleg, according to the study, based on the projected development impact.
City council opinion: Couns. John Orlikow (River Heights-Fort Garry) and Justin Swandel (St. Norbert) support the construction of the more direct route first.
Manitoba Hydro opinion: The provincial Crown corporation's land is unaffected by this alignment.
CN Rail opinion: A two-year lead time is required to relocate the Letellier line and its own work must be complete before the city begins work on the rapid-transit corridor. This is a major consideration, given the length of the line that would be relocated as part of this option.
Developer opinion: Shindico Realty, which owns nearby land, sees "better opportunities for commercial intensification" along the more direct route. Again, Gem Equities does not care either way.