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City council can't decide which bus to ride

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The easiest way to make fun of city hall politics is to simply put a few city reports beside one another and search for the inevitable inconsistencies in logic, cost or strategy. They usually appear almost instantly. The latest example of this phenomenon is with public transit, a file that's already experienced more than its share of shifting priorities over the life of Sam Katz's mayoralty.

Recently, students at the University of Manitoba and University of Winnipeg voted in referenda to impose a mandatory fee on all students to buy bus passes. Known as a "UPass" model, their plan is similar to deals signed in several other Canadian cities. In exchange for the bulk-buy of transit passes, Winnipeg Transit should be able to guarantee a low student price for each pass. Students, public officials and transit advocates have had on-and-off negotiations to try to deliver a similar deal for well over a decade.

Some readers will object to these plans on principle, as student unions are effectively taxing students who drive, cycle or walk to subsidize bus fares. Put that debate aside for the moment. From city hall's perspective, what's important is council is now in receipt of proposals that effectively guarantee an increase in transit ridership, partly funded by users. As a bonus, increased transit use at the U of M's Fort Garry campus should contain demand for parking in the area. This, in turn, will help to hide city hall's fly-by-night approach to traffic and parking issues in and around the new Investors Group Stadium.

However, in a report to be considered today at council's infrastructure and public works committee, the public service recommends the UPass proposals be received as information, which basically tosses them into the nearest landfill. UPass models usually increase demand for transit service -- so much so that Winnipeg Transit projects a ridership increase of up to 20 per cent from the baseline at both universities. More riders mean more buses will be needed to service them. The gap between new revenue and new costs is projected at $3.6 million annually. The report doesn't even bother to identify options to fill this gap.

Yet both the mayor and his friends in the public service have shown nothing but enthusiasm for a costly extension of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line. So much so that the mayor is relentlessly attacking the premier for failing to commit full funding for the project, pushing his usual complaints about broken roads into the background. Few have pointed out Katz's BRT funding plan calls on the province to pay a larger share than it would traditionally pay in intergovernmental infrastructure deals, but he's very disappointed in the potential for delay all the same.

Push aside the fact the mayor was first elected on a promise to sideline BRT. Leave aside the fact the mayor delayed transit planning by at least a year with a craven effort to sell an LRT line he couldn't fund in 2010. Don't forget to secure right-of-way for the new BRT corridor, city hall might pay untold millions to buy back land council swapped away just years before.

Even if you put these and other objections aside, the juxtaposition of $350 million worth of BRT cheerleading beside the lack of enthusiasm for the UPass deal says something profound about how city hall works, plans, thinks and spends in the twilight of the mayor's reign.

Remember, if a decade's worth of speeches, reports and funding submissions are to be believed, Winnipeg isn't just building rapid transit for entertainment value. The whole point of BRT was a back-of-the-napkin calculation that faster bus service on the congested Pembina corridor would generate more riders. More ridership was supposed to cut traffic congestion, reduce per capita emissions and manage demand for costly road and parking infrastructure in the process.

So, do the math yourself: For $137.5 million of (mostly borrowed) city money and over $200 million the mayor hopes to shake down from senior governments, city hall is hell-bent on buying an uncertain increase in ridership with a busload of development issues, planning caveats and cost uncertainties attached.

On the other hand, with months of lead time to work it out, city officials couldn't even specify options to fund a projected 20 per cent increase in ridership on routes travelling over existing infrastructure. Most of the increased UPass ridership is expected in the very same corridors where rapid transit was originally meant to increase demand -- by 20 per cent -- in the first place. The $3.6 million in annual cost is well within the city's reach if it were spent a little more wisely.

Like I said: Do the math yourself.

 

Brian Kelcey is a local commentator and creator of State of the City Research.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 30, 2013 A9

History

Updated on Tuesday, April 30, 2013 at 9:32 AM CDT: corrects spelling of Brian Kelcey

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