Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tax phobia drives Browaty's crazy rapid-transit 180

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How many Winnipeg city councillors does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Sixteen -- one to actually screw in the bulb and 15 others to sit around and debate whether we need light at all.

You think that's funny? A brief examination of the state of the rapid-transit debate at city hall will demonstrate this city council is a tragedy, not a laughing matter.

The most recent rapid-transit wrinkle comes courtesy of Coun. Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan). The affable councillor genuinely shocked more than a few people at city hall this week when he proposed the city hold a non-binding plebiscite or referendum in conjunction with the Oct. 22 civic election to decide whether to proceed with phase 2 of bus rapid transit (BRT).

Despite a clear and present need for better rapid transit to move people in and out of the centre of the city, council is cursed with an inability to get the job done. And not just this council; just about every iteration of council over the last 60 years has screwed this up.

We have just a single dedicated busway (from Main Street to Pembina Highway at Jubilee Avenue) that, on its own, doesn't accomplish much of anything. Plans to proceed with a second phase, connecting the existing bus corridor to the University of Manitoba, have been stuck in endless study, negotiation and deliberation.

Notwithstanding the city's chronic inability to get its ducks in a row, the federal and provincial governments have offered $365 million of the estimated $407-million cost of completing the second phase. Yet, with all that on the table -- the desperate need for mass transit, the busway to nowhere and the money pledged by the feds and the province -- Browaty has picked now to propose a referendum.

First, the matter of a referendum. At a time when fewer than 50 per cent of eligible voters take the time to cast a ballot in a municipal election, a referendum is a pointless exercise. That is, unless you want to provide an easy opportunity for a true minority of voters to decide a major issue for all citizens.

Browaty's suggestion of a non-binding plebiscite is even more ridiculous. If it's not binding, why consult the citizens at all? Why not make rapid transit an issue during the fall campaign and let everyone pick the candidate who represents their views on the matter?

Browaty will argue the real issue here is affordability, and that this city cannot afford to proceed with phase 2. However, he apparently believes the city can afford to expand and extend freeways and outlying arterial routes. Even if you can get beyond the inherently silly nature of the proposed referendum, it's impossible to ignore the lack of logic in his demand the city invest heavily in suburban freeways to the exclusion of rapid transit.

The citizens who drive on those expanded freeways are, on a day-to-day basis, most likely to drive downtown to work.

As most of those suburban drivers can attest, the major arteries that feed downtown right now are jammed to the hilt. There is simply no way to expand capacity on the routes that either feed downtown directly or feed routes that feed downtown.

Based on that reality, the whole idea of expanding freeways on the outer reaches of the city seems particularly foolish. Without rapid transit, all that better suburban freeways accomplish is to ease the flow of traffic from the suburbs onto the overburdened arterial routes to the core of the city. In other words, it accomplishes nothing.

Oddly, one of the leading advocates of that perspective was, at one time, Browaty himself. In 2012, he mused openly about the need to make transit more appealing to commuters. Why? Rapid transit, Browaty argued then, is one of the best ways to decrease congestion on arterial roads that are already at capacity.

What happened between then and now? Browaty is one of several councillors at city hall who simply cannot get their minds around any idea that might involve a hike in property taxes.

Unfortunately, all the good things this city needs cost money. That means city councillors, those citizens who are elected to make the really tough decisions, have to occasionally make tough decisions.

Browaty might see a referendum as an easy out, a way to kill rapid transit without having to wield the knife himself. It is, however, a fool's pursuit.

Winnipeg needed rapid transit 60 years ago. The need is much greater now. Putting off the hard work and difficult decisions needed to make that happen is, in the final analysis, a profound, tragic abdication of the duties of an elected public servant.

Forget about a referendum on rapid transit. How about a binding vote on whether to limit candidacy in this upcoming election to people who actually want to get things done?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 23, 2014 B1

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