A confrontation is brewing inside city hall between senior administrators and a member of Mayor Katz’s executive committee.
Coun. Russ Wyatt, chair of the finance committee, has accused senior administration of withholding information about design changes to the second phase of the $600-million bus transit corridor.
Wyatt (Transcona) said Tuesday that he was informed that the administration had "declined" to brief the finance committee on the transit project changes and the resulting cost implications.
"I’m extremely disappointed," Wyatt said of the administration’s refusal to attend the upcoming Thursday committee meeting. "I think it’s crucial that a project of this size and magnitude be described and the figures confirmed before we move further on these projects otherwise we will have a runaway bus that will make the police headquarters project look like a popsicle stand."
But later in the day, a spokeswoman from city hall’s corporate communications department said that the administrators would attend the meeting and provide the transit project update.
Wyatt said he was glad the administration had a change of heart, adding he's looking forward to hearing what they have to say about the project.
Wyatt has had several high-profile clashes with the civic administration, revealing his serious mistrust of a handful of senior civic officials. Last week, he accused unnamed administrators of encouraging CUPE Local 500 to challenge the 3.5 days of unpaid leave over the Christmas break. Late in the summer, Wyatt accused the Winnipeg police executive of leaking details of an operational review of the Winnipeg Police Service.
Wyatt said earlier that he remains concerned that project changes, which have not been approved by council or presented to council, would result in a dramatic escalation of the project cost.
In a March 28 interview with the Free Press, Wyatt said the administration had informed members of the executive policy committee during a private presentation that they were contemplating significant changes to the transit corridor route, including transforming the Jubilee Underpass into a cloverleaf exchange with a new westward roadway that could benefit developers; construction of additional underpasses; additional rail line relocation and the purchase of land from Manitoba Hydro.
City hall’s corporate communications department later contacted the Free Press and said that Wyatt’s allegations about design changes are not accurate but it refused to make transit director Dave Wardrop available for an interview.
Wyatt said he requested the administration attend Thursday’s finance committee to present these new developments in a public forum.
However, Wyatt said he was told by the city clerk’s office that the administration would not attend the committee meeting on the grounds that they will make a presentation instead to all of council at a private council seminar.
"What I heard through the clerk’s office is they are declining to attend," Wyatt said. "That’s not acceptable. They should come to speak to this project.
"This comes down to the question – who is running the city? The mayor and council or is senior administration?"
Wyatt said he supports holding a council seminar but added that members of the finance committee should be informed if there are changes and potential cost increases.
Councillors have not yet been invited to a seminar on the bus corridor project.
Wyatt said he’s concerned the bus corridor project will be a repeat of the police headquarters project, where council was presented with a series of cost increases.
Wyatt said the transit corridor was originally proposed in December 2012 as a $275 million project, the price of which later rose to $350 million. The expanded project has since ballooned to $600 million, with the transit portion now costing $425 million. Additional works includes reconstruction of the Jubilee underpass, at $105 million, and related sewer drainage work, at $70 million.
Wyatt said councillors need to know if the current cost estimates are accurate or if proposed design changes, which have not been approved by council, will drive the costs higher.
"We need to get a handle on this project and we need to get a handle on it now," Wyatt said.
"Unless we clearly identify what we’re doing here and that this has council support, the costs of these projects will spiral… which we cannot allow to happen again."
Wyatt said a major increase in the project should prompt council to consider converting the bus corridor into a light rail project.