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Fielding's rapid-transit stance on wrong track

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Scott Fielding is calling for rapid-transit funding to be put into road repairs instead.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Scott Fielding is calling for rapid-transit funding to be put into road repairs instead. Photo Store

In a mayoral race in which six out of eight potential candidates can be safely described as right of centre, it makes sense for Scott Fielding to try to stand out from the field.

The two-term councillor for St. James-Brooklands is positioning himself to be the populist fiscal conservative among a crew of fellow conservatives that either have more elitist trappings or lean closer to the centre.

Fielding is no lunch-bucket-carrying everyman. He's a former pharmaceutical sales rep who has interests in a pair of businesses and lives in upper-middle-class Linden Woods.

But Scott Fielding's voting record and political philosophy can safely be described as neo-libertarian, even if that's a word he'd never use to describe someone who's in small government and would prefer to see the market provide solutions to public-policy problems.

Last week, Fielding was doing his best to prove his populist cred by campaigning against the extension of the Southwest Transitway, the city's first dedicated bus corridor.

The 3.6-kilometre first phase of the transitway was completed in 2012 at a cost of $138 million. A seven-kilometre extension to the University of Manitoba comes with a $600-million price tag because it's packaged with two other Fort Garry projects -- a new Jubilee underpass and the Cockburn-Calrossie drain replacement.

Fielding, who has never supported rapid transit, launched an online petition that attempts to mine the same anti-elitist sentiment directed against megaprojects such as the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and Investors Group Field.

Fielding wants prospective rapid-transit funding to be spent on road repairs instead and urged Winnipeggers to tell "the politicians, insiders at city hall that we need to address infrastructure, make that our No. 1 priority."

As far as campaign strategy goes, it's not a bad gambit to gain attention. Mayor Sam Katz, who may or may not be running again, oversaw the construction of the transitway's first phase despite his well-documented ambivalence to rapid transit.

Lawyers Gord Steeves and Brian Bowman, who most likely will run, can be painted as members of the political elite by the mere nature of their profession. Only Charleswood-Tuxedo Coun. Paula Havixbeck is also playing the populist card, though she's also courting union support for her potential mayoral run.

Fielding's anti-rapid-transit position, however, runs the risk of driving away potential supporters across the political spectrum who may have seen him as a safe place to park their votes.

Although he only garnered support of six per cent of Winnipeggers in the two mayoral-race polls to date, Fielding has room to grow because he has been strong on ethical reform at city hall and chose to break ranks with Katz.

His rapid-transit hate-on, however, is a bad move in the long run, as the roads-not-transit argument fails to stand up to logical scrutiny.

Winnipeg suffers from inadequate infrastructure because it's too spread out. The lack of density in this city requires too much money to be shovelled into road, sewer and water-main maintenance.

And as any student of Winnipeg's recent history can tell you, one of the main contributors to this lack of density is the absence of a rapid-transit network.

Winnipeg began pondering rapid transit in the 1950s and '60s, around the same time Toronto and Montreal started building subways. Decades of dithering allowed Winnipeg to be lapped by Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa, which pursued various permutations of light rail, subways and dedicated bus corridors.

Development along transit lines and transit-station nodes has improved density in all of these cities. But Winnipeg kept on building roads and focusing on single-family-home development, with disastrous results.

This city has started to improve density through modest means, such as insisting on smaller lot sizes for single-family homes and demanding more multi-family housing in new suburbs. But we are desperate for more rapid transit to promote real density.

Without mass transit, you cannot build up instead of out. And if you build out instead of up, you cannot afford your roads.

What Fielding is promoting spells disaster for Winnipeg. He's selling the promise of better roads when in fact the best way to do so would be to invest in transit.

Fielding's ethics are unimpeachable. He is polite and appears popular with the constituents in his ward. But Winnipeg has waited too long for not just the Southwest Transitway, but a full network of transit corridors to endure another rapid-transit debate. Six decades is long enough.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 4, 2014 B1

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott.

Bartley appears every second Wednesday on CityTV’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as National Geographic Traveler, explore magazine and Western Living.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives
Email: bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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