Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

EPC endorses light rail transit

Mayor's inner circle approves plan despite storm of criticism

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Mayor Sam Katz's inner circle has endorsed light rail as Winnipeg's preferred mode of rapid transit, despite a storm of criticism about the uncertainty of acquiring funding for flexible streetcars and the merits of the technology compared to bus rapid transit.

On Wednesday, executive policy committee voted unanimously to formalize the city's preference for light rail over bus rapid transit. The six-member body also voted to incorporate light rail into a forthcoming $1.15-million transportation strategy and continue trying to access federal money from a fund set aside for public-private partnerships.

"The goal is to have a modern, vibrant, progressive city. That's what I want Winnipeg to be," Katz told reporters after the vote, asserting only light rail will persuade motorists to "lose their car mentality" and take public transit.

The EPC-endorsed plan, which faces council approval on July 21, is another volley in an escalating conflict between Katz and the Selinger government over the completion of the Southwest Rapid Transit Corridor.

The $138-million first phase of the corridor, a 3.6-kilometre link between Queen Elizabeth Way near The Forks and Jubilee Avenue at Pembina Highway, is slated to be completed in late 2011. Ottawa and Manitoba have offered the city $130 million in infrastructure-stimulus funding toward the $220-million construction of the second phase of the busway, a six-kilometre extension to Bison Drive near the University of Manitoba.

Early this year, Katz turned down the offer because he felt it wasn't enough cash and he would rather see the Building Canada Fund used to finance road and bridge projects such as traffic improvements around Polo Park and a western extension of Chief Peguis Trail.

Council then voted to remove the Southwest Rapid Transit Corridor from a city infrastructure-funding wish list and voted to fund a study to confirm that light rail is less expensive than previously believed.

The results of that study arrived before EPC on Wednesday in the form of a three-page summary that asserted light rail is superior to bus rapid transit in terms of time-travel savings, emission reductions and financial savings.

The lack of detail in the summary led Fort Rouge Coun. Jenny Gerbasi, environmental consultant Ken Klassen and Thomas Novak from the Winnipeg Rapid Transit Coalition to appear before EPC and accuse Katz of manipulating the public service for political purposes. They say the mayor is abandoning the Southwest Rapid Transit Corridor midstream and "rolling the financial dice" by chasing after P3 Canada cash instead of accepting a firm offer of stimulus money.

"You have been perfectly consistent about placing obstacles in the way of rapid transit," Novak told Katz in a sarcastic address.

In response, the mayor said he has confidence in the city officials who prepared the report. He accused Gerbasi of hypocrisy, claiming she and former mayor Glen Murray routinely manipulated administrative reports.

The conclusions in the short summary approved by EPC differ from the conclusions of a pair of more detailed studies the city commissioned to compare bus rapid transit with light rail transit.

In 2009, consulting firm HDR concluded bus rapid transit is a safer financial bet for Winnipeg than light rail transit, while a 2008 study by Dillon Consulting concluded a completed busway can be converted into a light-rail corridor without any major obstacles.

Katz shrugged off the contradiction between the recommendations. He also declined to surmise how much a flexible streetcar corridor would cost or how the city would pay for its share of the project.

The mayor said bus rapid transit amounts to "doing something on the cheap" and suggested Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger is being misled about the issue by NDP-affiliated city councillors.

Over the past two months, Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux has told Katz to "get moving" on the second phase of the southwest corridor, while senior Manitoba MP Vic Toews has said Katz should "fish or cut bait."

On Wednesday, mayoral challenger Judy Wasylycia-Leis accused Katz of being irresponsible with public funds by spurning the federal-provincial offer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 8, 2010 A3

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