Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rapid-transit referendum bad idea

Giving voters a say means another delay

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If votes were held on the Esplanade Riel, MTS Centre or the floodway, they wouldn't have happened

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

If votes were held on the Esplanade Riel, MTS Centre or the floodway, they wouldn't have happened Photo Store

Just think of all the things we wouldn't have if we got our way.

No Manitoba Legislative Building. No Red River Floodway -- neither the original Duff's Ditch nor the deeper, wider version from the recent expansion would have come to fruition.

But it doesn't stop there. No MTS Centre and likely no Winnipeg Jets 2.0. Investors Group Field, home of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, would have been a long shot.

Forget about The Forks Market and park, and the striking Esplanade Riel that connects it to St. Boniface.

Although not everyone loves everything on that list, it's fair to say most of us appreciate these amenities as symbols of the city and province. When friends or family come to visit, this is what we take them to see. These are the things Winnipeggers brag about, when we brag about our city at all.

However, it's important to remember these things only became popular and were embraced more robustly after they were built. Before, they were the subject of derision and criticism. So much so if citizens had been left to cast a vote on each and every one before an elected official approved a public expenditure, it's quite likely none would have been built.

Which brings us to today, and rapid transit. A Free Press-Probe Research poll published this week shows 71 per cent of respondents would like to vote in a referendum on whether to invest more cash on bus rapid transit.

The poll showed slightly more people would vote against BRT investment than would vote for it. Winnipeg is one of the last cities of its size in Canada without rapid transit, and the poll strongly suggests a referendum would ensure we stay that way.

The absence of rapid transit has become one of this city's greatest embarrassments. As a formerly stagnant, slow-growth community, successive generations of elected officials agreed to put off investment in a true rapid-transit system because it wasn't needed at that time. They had no sense of what the city's future might need, no vision.

Vision is the ability to calculate the long-term value of a difficult decision you make today.

It's not about predicting the future, but it does involve seeing and doing the things now that need to be done to make the future better.

Premier Duff Roblin had vision. He realized unless he built a channel around Winnipeg for the Red River to flow through each spring, Winnipeg would decline. He faced significant political opposition and was decried by many voters.

Years later, of course, Roblin is recognized as one of the greatest Manitobans because he could see digging a ditch around Winnipeg was something that had to be done.

What has our lack of vision cost us? Just as one example, it has left Winnipeg without a true freeway system featuring overpasses to keep commercial traffic flowing freely away from the core of the city. Freeways have been debated for decades. Each time elected officials without vision carried the day and killed any sense of progress.

The proponents of a BRT referendum will argue it's about democracy, and the only fair way of deciding whether any additional money should be spent completing the southwest transit corridor from Main Street to the University of Manitoba.

To be clear, the referendum is just the latest, and perhaps greatest, way of slowing down rapid transit in the hope it becomes too expensive to complete.

Consider that the cost of completing the southwest corridor is now pegged at $408 million, significantly more than the $275-million estimate of a few years ago. Foot-dragging at city hall, led in large part by Mayor Sam Katz, has caused delay after delay. And with each delay comes additional costs.

Referendum proponents understand that, in contrast to general elections, special ballot propositions are death sentences for progressive ideas. They are easily manipulated by small but loud special interests because voter turnout is woefully low, even lower than general elections. It would likely require less than one-fifth of all voters to impose a decision on all citizens.

The referendum proponents, the grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren of the original visionless class at city hall, are concerned only with short-term fixes for traffic congestion and infrastructure woes. They cannot see a future for Winnipeg in which the majority of people travelling downtown from the suburbs are riding buses, rather than sitting one to a car in traffic jams.

Make no mistake about it, a referendum is a victory for those without vision. It is a promise from its proponents that Winnipeg will continue its tradition of turning its collective back on the progressive measures needed to ensure the city grows and prospers.

Councillors will debate the possibility of a referendum today.

It's a pretty important vote. The future of the city is at stake.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 25, 2014 B3

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