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Method or madness to Swandel's transit increase?

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At first blush, Coun. Justin Swandel's motion this week to raise transit fares another 20 cents appeared to be an angry, spur-of-the-moment response that had not been properly thought out. Upon further reflection, there is little doubt it was an angry, spur-of-the-moment gesture, although there could be some method behind his madness.

Swandel introduced a surprise motion on Wednesday to boost transit fares by 20 additional cents next June to help pay for rapid transit. Swandel said Thursday he had plotted the motion earlier this week after Coun. Jenny Gerbasi introduced a motion at public works committee to move up the completion date of the southwest transit corridor -- which would run from downtown to the University of Manitoba -- to 2016. The motion was passed at council, Swandel said, with no clear idea where the city would find the $300-million needed to complete the corridor. "It was unacceptable to move up the completion date without funding," Swandel said.

So, Swandel decided to up the ante and move a motion for a 20-cent fare increase, which would generate between $6.5 million and $7.5 million a year, that would go into a separate rapid transit reserve. That cash would allow the city to service up to $100 million in borrowing to complete the rapid transit corridor.

The motion calling for an additional fare increase has a "safety valve," Swandel insisted. Because it does not take effect until next June, the province and the city have seven months to work out a different solution that does not require a precipitous increase in transit fares. In that context, Swandel said his motion is designed to get the province to the table to propose a serious solution to the city's revenue crunch. In fact, the fare increase may not have to take effect at all if cooler heads prevail before June, he added. "The province could easily find a way of making sure this never happens," he said.

It is not tough to share Swandel's impatience. Or, for that matter, the impatience of Gerbasi in moving up the completion date of the southwest corridor. Rapid transit has been a poorly handled file at city hall and the legislature. Instead of progress on some sort of transit plan, we've had layers of study, reams of hyperbole and years of needless delay. The end result is, of course, that Winnipeg is still years away from developing an efficient, modern system for moving people around the city.

There is also some merit in Swandel's efforts to ensure the rapid transit debate includes some discussion about how to pay for it. The master transit plan, revealed earlier this month, identifies a timetable for completion of billions of dollars of transit infrastructure without a concrete plan to pay for it.

However, it remains to be seen whether the motions by Gerbasi and Swandel have their desired outcomes, or merely add to the delays we've already witnessed. What we do know is the province did not appreciate the rapid transit politics at city hall this week. Not surprisingly, the province does not like fielding questions about fare hikes that are not first discussed in a bilateral working group on transit. In general, the NDP government has shown little interest in throwing its support behind potentially unpopular fare or tax hikes proposed by the city. Premier Greg Selinger was quick to suggest Thursday he didn't like the idea of asking transit users, many of whom have lower incomes, to bear the entire brunt of the southwest corridor.

Selinger's response is, Swandel argued, exactly what he wanted from the province. The motion, he said, was designed to provoke the province into discussing a long-term funding solution that would not only keep the existing system humming but pay for all of the rapid transit enhancements. The city must find new revenue sources to service additional debt and this motion gives the two levels of government seven months to find the money.

Katz put a sharper point on the strategy, suggesting the province should "stop talking the talk" and start "walking the walk" on transit funding.

The big question now is whether Swandel and Katz have provoked the province to find a solution, or just provoked the province. Period. Swandel's motion, and Katz's commentary, must be pretty galling for the province given the city has been so indecisive on this file since Katz took office.

The lack of a long-term funding solution for transit is a failure Katz and Selinger must share. But right now, it's tough to see how a greater spirit of co-operation is going to come out of this latest twist in the transit narrative. The NDP government, elected largely on support from Winnipeg ridings, is unlikely to abandon the city on transit. That does not mean, however, that Selinger will take the bait and give the city whatever it wants before June.

If Swandel's motion somehow pushes the two levels of government to find a solution, then we should applaud his methods. If it pushes the two sides further apart, we'll all bemoan the madness of his motion.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 18, 2011 A5

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