After taking decades to build Winnipeg's first short stretch of rapid transit, city hall is in a rush to figure out where the next few kilometres will go.
This morning, city council's public works committee will take another stab at deciding on a route for the second phase of the Southwest Transitway, which runs 3.6 kilometres between Queen Elizabeth Way and Jubilee Avenue.
The next six or seven kilometres will either run along CN Rail's Letellier line, parallel to Pembina Highway, or jog through Fort Garry through the Parker lands and a Manitoba Hydro corridor. After studying the options for more than a year, Winnipeg Transit is recommending the indirect route, claiming the seven-kilometre dogleg will be less disruptive to motor-vehicle traffic, require less land to be expropriated and will serve as a spark for more residential development.
Proponents of the more direct, six-kilometre option insist the busway must be closer to Pembina Highway to serve existing and potential riders both east and west of the major artery. They also describe the direct route as a safer bet for redevelopment than empty fields alongside the Manitoba Hydro right-of-way and north of Parker Avenue.
In January, the public works committee held off on making any decision about the transitway alignment at the behest of River Heights-Fort Garry Coun. John Orlikow, who argued his constituents deserve more time for consultations.
Some senior city officials are now grumbling the time for talk is over, claiming transit engineers need to start planning now in order for construction to begin in 2014. There's also speculation council will move quickly in order for the project to be eligible for $75 million worth of federal funding reserved for public-private partnerships.
This morning, Orlikow plans to offer the committee a compromise -- begin planning for both alignments. And he has an ally in St. Norbert Coun. Justin Swandel.
"This rush to do something right now -- who is it serving? Is it to access the federal money? If that's the case, then say so," Swandel said Monday in an interview.
He and Orlikow maintain there's no reason why the city can't build a busway parallel to Pembina now and then run an extension through the Parker lands in the future, when development warrants it. Both councillors also contend the people most likely to use transit live closer to Pembina Highway in neighbourhoods such as Wildwood and Beaumont. According to a city report, the western dogleg would improve transit options for Linden Woods.
But what really upsets Orlikow and Swandel is the potential for missing out on the opportunity to build up one-storey buildings alongside Pembina into higher-density developments. The notion there are more potential tax dollars to be had in undeveloped areas has already been questioned by transit experts outside of Winnipeg.
"This is voodoo economics. There are no incremental taxes there," insisted Swandel, claiming the city is merely acquiescing to provincial desires to complete the transitway by 2018. "Politics are driving the planning, rather than planning driving the politics."
The city's recent troubles regarding land development -- the city remains the subject of an external real-estate audit -- have made residents cynical about the city's motives, Orlikow added.
"There is a fair bit of that," he said, adding some of his constituents believe they're being kept in the dark for nefarious purposes. Right now, the second phase of the Southwest Transitway comes with a $350-million price tag.
The city has committed to borrowing $137.5 million, provided the province comes through with the same amount of cash and Ottawa provides $75 million. The province's intentions should be clear when the provincial budget is unveiled next month. The whole deal may yet fall apart.
The question is whether the transitway alignment really does need to be set in stone and why some city officials, both elected and appointed, are so desperate to go the indirect route.