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Rapid transit raises concerns

Councillors question budget hikes, design changes

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

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

Questions are being raised by senior councillors within Mayor Sam Katz's inner circle about unexpected design changes and budget increases to the second phase of the southwest bus rapid transit corridor.

Finance chairman Russ Wyatt said there are concerns the route, scope and budget of the corridor linking downtown to the University of Manitoba campus are being radically redrawn behind closed doors.

"There is a growing concern this has become a runaway train," Wyatt (Transcona) said. "We're moving ahead quickly, but a lot of the issues we see outstanding are not being addressed... in terms of cost, scope, what types of work are going to be proposed and undertaken."

Wyatt said members of Katz's executive policy committee were given a special briefing on the transit-corridor plans about a month ago, adding what the councillors heard was alarming:

-- Expanding the Jubilee underpass into a cloverleaf exchange that will provide a new roadway into either the Parker lands, south of the CNR Rivers rail line; or to vacant land north of the rail line owned by local developer Shindico Realty.

'There is a growing concern this has become a runaway train' -- finance chairman Russ Wyatt

-- Construction of three additional overpasses between Jubilee and the U of M campus.

-- Additional rail-line relocations, moving the rail line closer to homes in Waverley Heights.

Wyatt said he's worried council will be presented with a repeat of the police headquarters building -- a project with escalating budget increases.

"It seems the public service has a game plan that they haven't necessarily shared... with all of council," Wyatt said. "They definitely have not received council approval for the new scope of the project that they're talking about."

The frustration within EPC erupted on the floor of council this week, when Wyatt and Coun. Justin Swandel put transit-related questions to Katz some observers believed would have been previously discussed behind closed doors.

Wyatt questioned Katz about potential cost increases as a result of unidentified changes to the corridor. Katz said he wasn't aware of any budget increases.

Swandel, a member of EPC and chairman of public works, repeatedly asked Katz if he would stand behind a commitment he made not to support the relocation of rail lines between Bishop Grandin Boulevard and Bison Drive closer to the homes in Waverley Heights. Katz wouldn't give a direct answer and finally replied the question of rail-line relocation would be determined by council.

Wyatt said EPC members aren't getting the answers they need during the closed-door meetings with Katz.

"I felt it was important to raise those issues publicly," Wyatt said, of Wednesday's exchange with Katz on the floor of council. "We have had the conversation behind closed doors, but we're not getting the closure in terms of addressing the issues we're raising," Wyatt said.

"There is a genuine sense of frustration. You raise these concerns internally (during the private meetings), but you're not getting any kind of sense they're being addressed."

Concern about the $600-million project from within Katz's inner circle couldn't have come at a worse time. The city is preparing an application for $150 million in federal funding -- the final piece of the budget. City hall and the province agreed in November to each contribute $225 million to the project.

While Wyatt and Swandel went public with their questions, others on EPC who did not want to be identified said doubt is being raised about the entire bus rapid transit project.

There are questions being raised about the role, if any, being played behind the scenes by developers who might benefit from the corridor route, another EPC member said, adding the viability of the entire second phase is now uncertain.

"We've realized the benefits of the southwest rapid transit," the EPC member said. "But I don't know if it's worth the capital costs to proceed with Phase 2."

Wyatt asked Katz during Wednesday's council meeting to hold a seminar to update all of council on Phase 2 of the transit corridor, adding he's now convinced one is needed.

"All members of council need to fully understand the implications of this project," Wyatt said. "This is really a mega-capital project. I am very concerned for the potential not to stay on time and on budget, and the scope is being changed without coming back for council approval.

"Let's get a handle on what's going on here and decide, as a council, what we're going to do and what we're not going to do."

aldo.santin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 29, 2014 A3

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