Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Never easy answers with Wyatt

Bus-way opposition one more mystery

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Plans for the second phase of the southwest bus rapid transit corridor have expanded in both scope and cost.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Plans for the second phase of the southwest bus rapid transit corridor have expanded in both scope and cost. Photo Store

One of the joys of watching city hall -- and this is not a sardonic statement -- is you can never tell what Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt is doing.

City council's mercurial finance chairman sought a Winnipeg Labour Council endorsement in 2006 and now rails against the power of public-sector unions. He supported the provincial NDP before he helped MP Lawrence Toet claim Elmwood-Transcona for the federal Conservatives.

He railed against Mayor Sam Katz, joined executive policy committee, got kicked out and then signed up for another tour of inner-circle duty.

Now, the former leader of the rapid-transit task force is campaigning against the completion of the Southwest Transitway.

In March, Wyatt began raising red flags about the 7.6-kilometre extension of the city's first dedicated bus corridor from Jubilee Avenue to the University of Manitoba campus.

Since last June, this bus-way extension has been bundled with a pair of other southwest Winnipeg infrastructure projects: a new Pembina Highway underpass at Jubilee and the Cockburn-Calrossie drain.

The rationale for bundling up the projects is to minimize traffic disruption in north Fort Garry, where rail lines must be relocated temporarily and new bridges must be built.

Although the combined price tag has been hovering around $600 million for almost a year, Wyatt said he's concerned about the cost and claimed the project scope had increased to include a roadway through Parker lands owned by developer Andrew Marquess and a cloverleaf exit into Grant Park Pavilions, owned by Shindico Realty.

Wyatt claims EPC was told of these additional features at a closed-door briefing six weeks ago. He then demanded Winnipeg Transit director Dave Wardrop appear before his committee to answer questions about the amended plan.

Wyatt was ill and absent Thursday when Wardrop appeared -- and flatly shot down the councillor's claims.

When pressed by reporters, Wardrop said there is no plan to connect Wilkes Avenue with Pembina Highway by building a new major road through the Parker lands. The transit director also said there's no plan to provide vehicle access to Grant Park Pavilions.

A surprised Wyatt later said Wardrop's tale was different from what he was told behind closed doors six weeks ago. This creates a problem, because Wyatt wasn't making statements in a vacuum.

City hall, which has spent the past two years reeling from the fire-paramedic station scandal and the Winnipeg police headquarters debacle, is in no position to inspire public confidence about a $600-million megaproject.

Now Wyatt comes along and casts suspicion on a transitway several of his council colleagues would love to see derailed.

So what is motivating Russ Wyatt? The simplest explanation is usually the correct one. But there is no simple answer to what's happening on the transit file.

Wyatt said little in 2011 when the city first disclosed it might complete the Southwest Transitway by running it west through Parker and then jogging it south along a Manitoba Hydro corridor instead of going straight south along the CN Letellier line.

A transitway-alignment study finally concluded in 2013 that it was cheaper, easier and less disruptive to choose the Parker route. This will require the construction of four bridges -- including a new transitway span over Pembina Highway -- and up to 10 new transit stations, including a large terminal near Investors Group Field.

Access to the U of M campus likely will start along Markham Road and run through the vacant former Southwood golf course lands, which the U of M plans to redevelop.

The questions posed by Wyatt amount to whether the L-shaped transitway alignment was chosen to benefit the owners of adjacent land, rather than the transit system. But it isn't clear whether Wyatt is genuinely concerned about another city hall real estate boondoggle -- or whether he's just trying to foment public opposition to the transitway.

Muddying the waters is Wyatt's past threats to redirect transit funding if the province didn't comply with city demands -- as well as a more-recent Wyatt musing about the benefits of light rail transit over bus ways.

Winnipeggers are justified in their skepticism of city real estate transactions, including the Parker land swap, one of the subjects of the forthcoming real estate audit.

Whether that skepticism is worthy of tossing out the completion of the Southwest Transitway will only be known when and if Winnipeggers get to see what Wyatt says he saw a month ago.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 12, 2014 A8

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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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