In 1959, when North America was basking in the glow of the postwar boom, a transportation engineer named Norman Wilson devised a utopian subway plan for Winnipeg, then Canada's third-largest city.
Wilson, who also designed Toronto's subway system, advised the Manitoba capital to bury an interlocking network of three U-shaped subway lines below the city's waterways and the surrounding Red River Valley gumbo.
His plan was deemed untenable and unaffordable -- if not outright impossible -- and was ignored.
Thus began a 53-year period when Winnipeg would sit back and watch almost every other city on the continent build some form of rapid-transit system using subways, elevated rail lines, bus corridors or some combination of all three.
Since 1959, Winnipeg has had six mayors and 17 city councils. It amalgamated with 13 surrounding suburbs and allowed one, Headingley, to secede. It expanded its network of roads toward the Perimeter Highway and used up most of the green fields available for low-density housing developments.
It studied rapid transit no fewer than 13 times. It announced, cancelled and reannounced a bus-corridor project first envisioned in 1976.
And tomorrow, Winnipeg will take its first tentative step toward use of a rapid-transit system with the opening of the southwest transitway, a 3.6-kilometre corridor that allows buses travelling between downtown and southwest Winnipeg to bypass traffic in and around Osborne Village.
"The hardest 3.6 kilometres of rapid transit have now been laid. I always said, if you get the first couple of kilometres down, the rest will follow," said former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray, now an Ontario provincial cabinet minister and Liberal MPP. "The biggest problem with rapid transit in Winnipeg was trying to lay that first kilometre of track or busway. Once people ride it, they will want more."
The actual problem with rapid transit in Winnipeg stemmed from two simple factors: money and political will. Over the past five decades, both commodities have been scarce in a Manitoba capital saddled with slow population growth and heavy debt in the late 20th century.
Following the dismissal of Norman Wilson's subway plan, the city focused primarily on building freeways in its first real attempt to develop a transportation plan. The Winnipeg Area Transportation Study, completed in 1966, called for a network of freeways as well as a single subway line running from Polo Park along Portage Avenue, Main Street and the Redwood Bridge.
This too was shelved before Mayor Stephen Juba, who held the office for 20 years, decided to focus on running rapid transit above ground. In 1972, as Winnipeg's 100th anniversary approached, Juba announced his famous monorail plan, which was met with the same indifference as the two previous subway proposals.
The monorail idea was finally put to the test in 1976 in the city's first modern analysis of several rapid transit options, the Winnipeg Southwest Transit Corridor Study, which looked at four means of moving commuters between downtown and the University of Manitoba.
It concluded a diesel-bus corridor was the most flexible option for a cash-strapped city, even though it noted three other options -- a monorail, light rail track and electric trolley-bus corridor -- would have less of an environmental impact.
The 1970s ended without a plan for such a corridor. And so did the 1980s.
"Rapid transit just wasn't a political priority. They were more interested in expanding streets," said Rick Borland, Winnipeg Transit's director from 1980 until 2004, when he served under four different mayors.
By the 1990s, however, there was a growing understanding Winnipeg Transit was no longer serving the city's transportation needs. Ridership was dropping and some citizens looked longingly at Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa, which were building monorail, light-rail and bus-corridor systems.
Winnipeggers began asking, rightfully, why not here?
In the early 1990s, the city began buying up and banking Fort Rouge land with an eye to eventually building the southwest corridor. But by this time, the city had no financial means to proceed, thanks to heavy borrowing during the 1970s and 1980s.
"They put a very real cap on the amount of external borrowing. The objective was to bring (debt) down to zero, essentially," Borland recalled.
But the city wasn't saddled with just financial debt. The expansion of the road system following the Second World War left the city struggling to maintain its far-flung infrastructure and provide services to newer suburbs.
"Once a large road network was in place, maintaining these roads (became) a significant expense," planning student Christopher Baker wrote in a 2010 masters practicum for the University of Manitoba.
"Winnipeg city council could never commit to rapid transit and funding was always an issue. Without a rapid transit system, development has been focused solely around the automobile. This has left Winnipeg with a large, widespread, expensive road network to maintain and no rapid-transit corridors to expand upon."
Hence Glen Murray's contention Winnipeg simply needed to take the plunge.
In 1998, at the tail end of Susan Thompson's time in office, a new transportation blueprint called Transplan 2010 suggested the city should continue to hold off on rapid transit. One of Murray's first moves following his election was to see whether rapid transit could be built sooner.
While another Plan Winnipeg update in 2001 suggested five rapid-transit corridors, Murray championed an abbreviated version of the 1976 southwest-corridor plan.
"Every other major city had been involved with major transit projects. My concern was Winnipeg was being left behind," Murray said. "In a cold-winter city, with an aging population, high-speed rapid transit is important to retain young people."
In 2004, Murray reached a $51-million deal with Manitoba Premier Gary Doer and the federal Liberals to build a 3.4-kilometre southwest transit corridor, to be completed by 2007.
At the time, Murray believed developments along the corridor would allow the line to pay for itself. He also had fanciful plans to test out magnetic guidance systems along the southwest corridor in hope of creating a new industry in Winnipeg.
When Murray resigned in the spring of 2004 to run for a federal seat, his successor would have even more concerns about his bus-corridor plan.
In June 2004, Winnipeg Goldeyes owner and concert promoter Sam Katz swept into office in a mayoral byelection that saw him easily dispatch four high-profile, veteran politicians. The vast majority of city council was eager to work with the popular new mayor.
Fifteen years earlier, Katz had lost a Fort Rouge city council race to Murray and never became close with his former adversary. Once in the mayor's chair, Katz described the southwest transitway as a Murray "pet project" and questioned both the $51-million price tag and the projected benefits.
By the end of the 2004, Katz had convinced council to cancel the busway and was lobbying Doer and the federal Liberals to redirect most of the cash to recreation and leisure projects.
The day of the council vote, Borland quit his 24-year post in disgust, citing personal differences with the mayor. But in retrospect, Borland said Katz was correct when he asserted the project could not be completed for $51 million.
"We hadn't done the detailed design. In hindsight, we would have had great difficulty completing it at that cost," Borland said.
The southwest transitway includes a new bridge over Osborne Street and a 350-metre tunnel below the Fort Rouge rail yards. Borland said those components would have pushed the project cost beyond $51 million.
Eight years later, Katz said he feels vindicated. "They pulled a number out of the air. The funds were never there to do the project, but for eight years all I've ever heard about was how I cancelled it," the mayor said this week.
After the corridor's cancellation, Katz created a rapid-transit task force to weigh the city's options and expressed optimism about the prospects for light rail.
But the task force reinforced what transit officials already knew: Light rail would cost more than twice as much as bus rapid transit. In a final report, it recommended the construction of bus corridors to the University of Manitoba and Transcona.
The rapid-transit fight defined Katz's first term. At the time, the mayor maintained Winnipeg Transit was losing riders because bus stops were decrepit and service wasn't convenient.
So in 2006, the city laid out a plan to spend $142 million over six years to build dozens of heated bus shelters, refurbish 120 existing shelters, erect next-bus arrival signs, create diamond lanes on major arteries and make other improvements to core transit services.
Rapid transit was effectively dead at city hall -- until Ottawa showed up with an offer nobody could refuse.
In early 2008, the federal Conservatives announced Manitoba would receive $17.5 million for transit. It was a use-it-or-lose-it proposition.
Six months later, Katz and Doer stood side by side at Winnipeg Transit's Osborne Street headquarters and announced the resurrection of a Southwest corridor that would run from Queen Elizabeth Way to Pembina Highway at Jubilee Avenue. The 3.6-kilometre busway would cost $138 million, a price tag that included three new transit stations and automated passenger-information systems not envisioned under the Murray plan.
At Katz's insistence, the word "bus" was not mentioned during the announcement or in any of the provincial literature about the proposed corridor. "Light rail is just around the corner," Katz famously told reporters at the time.
Within months of the busway announcement that did not mention a busway, no less than three city departments were asked to figure out whether the corridor could be upgraded to light rail. Officials now blame this "anything but buses" mentality for setting progress on the transit file back 18 months.
With the province itching to sign a deal to complete the six-kilometre second phase of the Southwest Transitway, Katz backed away, partly because he did not believe the $189-million price tag and partly, officials say, due to his annoyance with the province for directing federal infrastructure funds toward CentrePort at the expense of other city priorities.
As a result, Katz spurned a $126-million federal-provincial offer to help fund the second phase of the transitway, yanked the second phase of the southwest corridor from a list of city priorities and convinced council to declare light rail the city's preferred mode of transportation.
With no movement on the transit file, Ottawa and Broadway spent $126 million on other projects. Rapid transit languished until the city unveiled yet another planning document, the Transportation Master Plan, which identified four rapid-transit corridors that could be completed by 2031.
The plan pegged the completion of the Southwest corridor at $275 million as a busway or $700 million to upgrade the entire line to light rail. Immediately after its release, Katz made a subtle but important policy adjustment: He agreed to complete the corridor as a busway.
There is still no money to actually build Phase Two. And not everyone on council believes it should be built.
Deputy Mayor Justin Swandel contends Winnipeg should focus on eliminating choke points for transit, rather than spending vast amounts of money on entire rapid-transit lines. "I think we can chip away at this bit by bit, instead of trying to hit home runs," he said.
Swandel maintains the benefits of Ottawa's often-celebrated busway network have been exaggerated, as there is little development along transit lines and congestion is severe on downtown streets where buses exit the corridor.
He also questions whether Winnipeg Transit will achieve its goal of boosting ridership by 20 per cent in the southwest catchment area after the Southwest Transitway opens.
This year, the utility will try to figure out where the second phase of the Southwest Transitway will go, said Bill Menzies, transit's service-development manager. Options on the table include running south along Pembina Highway and taking a L-shaped route through Fort Garry residential neighbourhoods.
The redevelopment of the Southwood golf course lands north of the university may also allow the transitway to end right at the new campus football stadium, said John Wintrup, the city's former principal planner.
On the eve of opening the first phase of the Southwest Transitway, Katz says he's committed to completing the entire route, with the caveat Winnipeg needs help from Broadway and Ottawa.
"If you look at different cities, they've done it in different ways. But they've all had phenomenal support from the provincial government and the federal government," Katz said.
The province maintains its funding is on the table. More squabbles are yet to come. Although the first little leg is in the can, the rapid-transit saga in Winnipeg is far from over.