Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Light-rail daydreams

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If city council endorses Mayor Sam Katz's bizarre insistence that it's light rail or nothing for Winnipeg, there will still be time and opportunity for everyone to come to their senses and reverse course. Unfortunately, however, there is no evidence the mayor and his inner circle are interested in listening to reason. It's damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead -- to where, nobody knows.

The mayor is hanging his hat on a consultant's report that claims light rail is not nearly as expensive as previously thought, and that it offers additional benefits in terms of the environment, community development and mobility. He also has faith the private sector will help finance the project, with aid from a special fund in Ottawa, but it's all just a hope and a prayer at this point.

If history teaches us anything, it's that cost projections for large projects in a faraway future are always wrong; but that's not really the point Mr. Katz and his crew are missing. The issue before council next week, when it votes on the mayor's program, is whether the city is needlessly and foolishly losing time and possibly money for a perfectly good plan for a southwest rapid transit corridor.

Everyone agrees that light rail is a more exciting mode of transport than buses on rubber wheels and maybe Winnipeg will be able to afford it in the future, but it is not in the cards today. Moreover, city officials have been assured that it will be possible to convert the existing infrastructure to light rail in the future.

The city, in other words, can move forward with the existing affordable plan without foreclosing on future opportunities. It's a reasonable plan and the mayor should get back on board before it's too late.

Both the federal and provincial governments are losing patience with the mayor and there is a real risk the city will lose their funding commitments unless the existing plan is embraced.

Mr. Katz is also complaining the cost of the second leg of rapid transit has risen to $220 million from $189 million, but the difference can probably be negotiated with the city's partners. It's certainly not a deal-breaker.

The mayor may think he is displaying vision and leadership by advancing light-rail transit and standing up against a Conservative government in Ottawa and an NDP administration on Broadway, but it's starting to look more like he is tilting at windmills.

When it's all over, the other levels of government may use the transit circus as an example of why cities should not be given new political and financial powers, and more opportunity to make adult decisions.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 8, 2010 A12

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