The construction of a light-rail network in Winnipeg will eventually be considered as visionary as the decision to build the Red River Floodway, Mayor Sam Katz said as council approved a plan to make flexible streetcars the city's preferred mode of rapid transit.
Evoking the name of Duff Roblin, the late provincial premier voted "the Greatest Manitoban" in 2008, Katz suggested Wednesday that anyone who doubts Winnipeg can afford light rail will be proven wrong in the long run.
"I know when former premier Roblin talked about the floodway, it was considered anything but visionary. There was nothing but harsh criticism from many people," Katz told reporters shortly before council voted 10-4 in favour of a plan to consider developing up to five flexible-streetcar corridors in Winnipeg. It asks Ottawa for money to complete the Southwest Rapid Transit Corridor as an "LRT-lite" line.
"When True North wanted to build the MTS Centre, there was a great deal of criticism. When yours truly wanted to build Canwest Park, there was a great deal of criticism," Katz said.
"After years, people call it visionary. I think you'll find LRT-lite is definitely visionary. We want to do what's right for the city in the long term."
The council decision, which was widely expected, is the latest escalation in a city-provincial rapid-transit dispute that began brewing in late 2009, when Katz decided to spurn a federal-provincial offer of $126 million to complete the southwest corridor.
The $138-million first phase of the corridor, a 3.6-kilometre dedicated busway that runs from Queen Elizabeth Way near The Forks to Jubilee Avenue near Pembina Highway, is due to be finished in late 2011.
Construction on the six-kilometre second phase, which would continue to Bison Drive near the University of Manitoba, was supposed to begin in 2012, based on a timetable presented when Katz and former premier Gary Doer announced the busway project in 2008.
But Katz said the cost of the second phase, originally pegged at $189 million, is now closer to $270 million, thanks to construction inflation. So he wants to direct the federal-provincial money to road and bridge projects such as traffic improvements at Polo Park and the western extension of Chief Peguis Trail instead.
For months, Katz has been asking Premier Greg Selinger to help him lobby Ottawa to find new money to upgrade the southwest corridor to accommodate flexible streetcars that can also ride on tracks placed in regular city streets. But Selinger and senior Manitoba MP Vic Toews both told Katz to accept the busway offer.
Toews has since softened his position, but Katz faces opposition councillors -- as well as a portion of the electorate -- who are skeptical of his rapid-transit intentions, given the many policy turns he's taken since he cancelled a $50-million busway project shortly after assuming office in 2004.
"Every time we wait, this costs us more," said Fort Rouge Coun. Jenny Gerbasi, who voted against the light-rail plan on Wednesday.
Mayoral candidate Judy Wasylycia-Leis also addressed council to repeat her assertion that light rail costs too much and Winnipeg doesn't have the density to support it.
But Wasylycia-Leis took an unexpected political beating from former Liberal cabinet minister Reg Alcock, who told council the former Winnipeg North MP's idea of giving Winnipeg companies such as bus manufacturer New Flyer a competitive advantage would be "disastrous for trade."
Katz, meanwhile, encouraged Winnipeggers to think big. The city can have both light rail and road improvements, he said.