Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Getting rapid transit just not rapid enough

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It was a good news day.

The city and province this week confirmed they will invest $600 million over the next four years to complete the bus rapid transit line from Jubilee Avenue to the University of Manitoba. It was a deal years in the making.

For anyone who takes the bus, or would take the bus if it were more convenient and faster, this was good news. Faster commutes to (and from) downtown from the burgeoning southern regions of the city, a chance for more value-added BRT development and, finally it seems, an end to intergovernmental hostilities on this file.

You add the BRT announcement to Wednesday's renewed pledge to increase funding for dedicated bike and pedestrian paths -- so-called active transportation -- and you've got plenty to hoot and holler about.

And yet, in our rush to celebrate we should remember this investment, as significant as it is, still means we are the worst city in Canada when it comes to developing rapid transit.

How bad are we? Ken Klassen, a senior researcher with the Centre for Applied Research in Sustainable Infrastructure at Red River College, has been tracking per capita spending on rapid transit in major Canadian cities. The results show that, on average, for every dollar spent on rapid transit in Winnipeg, other cities spent $9.

Klassen's numbers do not, of course, include the most recent BRT investment. But even with that money, we're way behind. "The public might think that we are finally catching up," Klassen said. "In fact, we're not. The best you could say is that we're falling behind more slowly."

According to Klassen's numbers, which are current to 2012, the leaders in per capita rapid transit spending are Toronto ($2,208 per person), Ottawa-Gatineau ($1,871), Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo ($1,641) and Vancouver ($1,422). Western cities such as Edmonton ($577) and Calgary ($553) lag quite a bit behind the leaders.

And what about Winnipeg? Klassen calculated rapid transit spending of about $181 per capita.

The reasons for this are varied. Spending on rapid transit was likely impaired by the years of horrible economic and population growth Winnipeg suffered in the 1980s and 1990s. However, when it comes right down to it, Winnipeg has simply not had the political leadership to make rapid transit a reality.

Klassen noted it's not the fault of policy. Winnipeg has a master transportation plan that envisions all kinds of modern features and enhancements, all of which were deferred by municipal and provincial leaders that always seemed to have a more pressing priority.

Unfortunately, our inability to get out in front of rapid transit has driven up other costs. Particularly, the cost of repairing and replacing roads and bridges.

The equation is simple: When more people use public transit, fewer vehicles use the roads. That limits wear and tear on roads, which ultimately means you go longer before having to pay the horrendous cost of replacing or repairing infrastructure. But there are other benefits. Rapid transit attracts new residents and businesses and induces existing residents, especially younger ones, to stay. It's a desirable amenity that separates dynamic cities from moribund ones.

The benefits, however, have not been enough to get anyone to make a serious effort to build a real rapid transit system.

Our failure to get a handle on rapid transit is also a reflection of a much bigger problem for government: When faced with opportunities to prevent a problem, or pay for its consequences, we always seem to choose the latter.

We starve preventative health programs in favour of building more hospitals. We avoid paying pennies for pre-emptive social supports to keep kids out of a life of crime so we can pay dollars later to build prisons.

Klassen says there are solutions just waiting to be embraced: Everything from subsidized bus passes to inducements for car pooling. Imagine if car poolers paid less for parking than those who drove by themselves, or if a company paid you a benefit on retirement for all the days you didn't drive to work? And Manitoba could look at increasing gasoline taxes -- and using the additional revenue to build rapid transit -- so they are in line with other cities.

The solutions to our rapid transit problems are there, just waiting to be put into action. Unfortunately, the longer we wait to take advantage of them, the further we fall behind.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 22, 2013 B1

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