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Timeline: Bridge over troubled yards

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WINNIPEG'S love-hate relationship with its railroad tracks is as old as the city itself.

But it's been 30 years since Winnipeg seriously pondered moving the vast CP Rail yards.

That debate was sparked by a seemingly innocuous plan to build a new bridge over the yards, connecting Sherbrook Street with McGregor Street.

That plan grew to include the extension of Furby Street through the backyards of dozens of poor, inner-city residents, spawning one of the city's biggest, most co-ordinated grassroots mobilizations and a real debate about the fate of the rail yards.

Key players in that debate are names still familiar to Winnipeggers, including Lloyd Axworthy, who pledged to move the yards when he was first elected to Parliament, former premier Gary Filmon, then a city councillor, then-mayor Bill Norrie, and Premier Greg Selinger, then an inner-city community organizer and a member of the Rail Relocation Committee.

All were mired in the kind of wrangling between the city, province and Ottawa that still plagues most major projects: Who would pay for a feasibility study, who would pay for the relocation, who could gather suburban support, who should act first?

After four years of political battles, the bridge plan was shelved, as was the idea of moving the rail yards.

Instead, the much-touted Core Area Initiative grew out of the debate. Ironically, cash from that fund paid for the redevelopment of the old CN Rail yards downtown, turning them into The Forks.

Here's a very brief history lesson, which gives a hint at how hard moving the rail yards might be today.

1882: CP Rail's line is built through what's now Winnipeg's core, part of hundreds of kilometres of trans-Canada track laid that year. In exchange for the line, the shops, the yards and a passenger depot, CP Rail is exempt from all city taxes.

1898: The first Salter Street bridge is built, later to be replaced and expanded twice.

1912: The Arlington Bridge opens, one of only four ways across the tracks.

1954: CP Rail starts paying a small portion of city taxes on its land, an amount to increase slightly every seven years.

1972: City council approves a rail relocation study's recommendation to move the CP Rail yards. Scepticism about the cost, political divisions on city council and changing federal priorities stymied progress.

1973: Instead of moving the rail yards, the city approves a long-term plan to build a new bridge over them -- the Sherbrook-McGregor overpass, sparking community opposition.

1977: City council narrowly defeats a motion to support a study that would look at relocating only the marshalling yards, not the main line. The net cost of moving the yards was pegged at $1 million with a net benefit of $23 million.

The same year, with a federal government less interested in urban rail-relocation projects and a provincial government focused on cost-cutting, council approves a $22-million plan to build the Sherbrook-McGregor overpass.

1978: In the summer lull, city council's executive policy committee meets in secret and decides to add an extra $4 million to the bridge project, extending Furby Street several blocks as an access point to the new bridge.

Neighbourhood activists -- including Social Planning Council of Winnipeg head Tim Sale and Rossbrook House's Sister MacNamara -- balk, and start organizing, fearing the Furby extension will destroy an inner-city neighbourhood and millions spent there on poverty projects. Instead, they lobby to relocate the yards.

1979: In a meeting with city officials, CP Rail executives say relocating the yards would likely cost in the tens or hundreds of millions, would have to include the Weston repair and diesel shops and the main line and would require government to compensate CP for the land. In short, CP Rail has no need to move, and doing so would cost government big-time, though many believe that is simply tough talk from a company unwilling to pay.

Mayor Robert Steen says relocating the yards would cost $200 million. Ottawa attempts to break the impasse by offering to fund a full rail-relocation study, which begins.

1980: A train derailment west of Winnipeg, a methanol spill at the CP Rail yards, combined with a major chlorine spill near Mississauga, Ont., the year before raise "a Pandora's box" of questions about rail safety that fuels the relocation debate.

That same winter, Ottawa releases the cost-benefit report, which pegs the cost of moving the main line and the marshalling yards at $169 million over five years and the future cost of overpasses and bridges at $65 million. Critics slam the report, saying it fails to add in the benefits of redevelopment and doesn't include real financial figures from CP.

In April, city council takes a new tack, committing the city to share with the province one-third of the cost of moving the yards and challenging Ottawa to pony up two-thirds, with a six-week deadline to commit. Instead, with regional minister Lloyd Axworthy under pressure to deliver for Winnipeg, the multimillion-dollar Core Area Initiative is born.

The federal pot of urban cash could be used for rail relocation if the city desired, but Ottawa also cleared the way for the overpass to be built. It again appears rail relocation is dead, and the bridge over the tracks is a go.

1981: A public seminar and hearing on the bridge project are held at the Winnipeg Convention Centre, with dozens of speakers, lasting two days and making plain the widespread opposition to the bridge. It proved to be the bridge's death knell. Council votes to kill the bridge plan, but with it goes the catalyst for relocating the yards.

2005: CP Rail begins paying full taxes on its land.

2009: NDP cabinet minister and leadership hopeful Steve Ashton pledges to negotiate the relocation of the CP Rail yards to the new inland port and build more affordable and social housing on the vacant site. The province's initial investment would be $50 million.

 

-- Sources: Winnipeg Free Press archives; Viable Policy and Plan Making: The Fight in Winnipeg to Stop the Sherbrook-McGregor Overpass and Relocate the CPR Yards, by Greg Selinger, 1985

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 7, 2012 J4

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