Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

City hall has dropped the ball on transit deal

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The city has demonstrated, yet again, its propensity for making tough problems impossible to solve.

The most recent case involves a failure to reach an agreement with the Winnipeg Football Club, owners of the Blue Bombers and the new Investors Group Field, on subsidized transit costs.

A deal to help bring down total costs of additional game-day transit services -- now paid entirely by the team -- was dashed for reasons not entirely clear.

Three weeks ago, Mayor Sam Katz said a deal to provide $625,000 of city and provincial subsidy to a $1.25-million transit tab was all but a slam dunk.

The cost quoted by Winnipeg Transit was high, but for all intents and purposes it was reasonable. For about $10.34 per round-trip rider, Winnipeg Transit provided buses, drivers, a mechanic and tow truck, and supervisors to make the entire thing run smoothly. This was a cost-recovery price.

After some initial rough spots, most fans will attest the team and Transit got everything working nicely. It was expected the subsidy deal would go before council this week. And then, nothing. In fact, it never even made it to council for discussion. The decision to withdraw the offer of subsidy was taken before council met, by an elected official or officials who have not yet stepped forward to enunciate their motivations.

Katz would only say some members of council felt the team, which reported a profit last year, no longer required a transit subsidy. The new stadium is heavily subsidized by taxpayers, and perhaps it's unreasonable to ask for more when the team is making money.

It's also true the city has the football team by the thumbs. As a precondition to starting construction, the Bombers had to guarantee the city it would pay the costs of providing transit for up to 30 per cent of attendance at any one event. So, the team cannot escape that commitment.

Second, there is really no way for the team to organize game-day transit on its own. Winnipeg Transit was an essential player in the design and execution of the highly complex pre-game and post-game plans.

Those are good reasons to rebuff the request for a subsidy. But is it a good idea? That's another matter.

Transit isn't just about alleviating gridlock around the stadium on game days; this is about attracting and retaining the support of fans who have already dramatically underwritten the cost of the new facility. The Bombers are facing a fairly steep schedule to repay loans it got from government to build the stadium. In order to do that, and pay for a top-flight product on the field, the Bombers need to attract fans.

On-field success will play the most important role in attracting fans. However, this is one of the least successful franchises in a league where a majority of teams lose money each year. Even with spanking new digs, nobody can promise the team will, on its own, draw the fans needed to generate the revenue to repay the loans. That means amenities such as transit will be critical to ensuring long-term support.

This leaves the city facing a bit of a conundrum: refuse the transit subsidy now while the team is profitable and risk financial woes and defaulted loan payments in the future.

If the original deal negotiated with the team was not acceptable, was a counter-offer? Will the city reconsider a transit subsidy if the team begins to lose money? These questions remain unanswered in large part because nobody is stepping up to answer them.

Of course, Katz is doing his best to, once again, provide an alternate narrative. Between Katz's "don't-worry-it's-a-slam-dunk" comment and the collapse of the transit-subsidy deal, the Bomber board rejected his appointee to the team's board. Is this payback? When asked about it this week, Katz would only continue to maintain he and the team had a great relationship. The mayor knows that is not true.

The sad aspect of this story is this is a basic feature in the promotion of CFL football in other cities. Montreal, Hamilton and Edmonton all have some sort of deal with their transit authorities to move game-day crowds.

What that means is this is a deal that could have and should have been done. Yes, it represented an additional subsidy to an already heavily subsidized activity and venue. However, this is an issue that required council to consider the long-term viability of the team and the need to have taxpayer loans repaid. In that regard, this issue has unfolded like many of the Bomber games last season.

We desperately needed a touchdown, but all we got was a punt.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 29, 2014 B1


Updated on Thursday, May 29, 2014 at 8:04 AM CDT: adds photo

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