Light rail transit pushed back into city conversation
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The decades-old debate on building light rail transit in Winnipeg may have some spark left in it.
While noting city council may be seen as “going boldly into the past,” Coun. Brian Mayes wants his colleagues to “seriously consider” adding light rail construction in the future, following the lead of many other cities.
“I feel like we may have missed the generation in which to do bus rapid transit. The city is growing… and I just feel like, why put in a network of BRT lines and then, the day you finish, start tearing them out because now you’re up to a million people and you want LRT?” said Mayes.
Winnipeg city council has debated the best way to ramp up its public transportation for decades, debating a light rail rapid transit option off and on since at least the 1970s. Eventually, the city settled on a bus rapid transit system and completed one dedicated corridor in 2020. The southwest rapid transitway was a two-phase project with a combined cost of $556 million.
Last year, council approved a 25-year Transit Master Plan that aims to create a network of six rapid transit corridors, which are again expected to rely on buses.
Since the city has only completed one rapid transit line so far, Mayes said it makes sense to re-evaluate how best to move forward, noting Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton all have light rail transit.
“(Light rail) would attract more people. I think some people who wouldn’t ride on a bus would ride on a train. You can use electric power and (Manitoba is) rich on electric power,” said Mayes.
The councillor doesn’t have a current cost estimate for a light rail system, but said the city could seek provincial and federal funding to help cover it, while the construction could also eliminate the need to add another lane of traffic for the oft-congested St. Mary’s Road.
While he’s not sure LRT would be feasible for all future rapid transit routes, Mayes suggests a St. Mary’s Road to Main Street line, as well as a Portage Avenue to Point Douglas or Portage Avenue to Provencher Boulevard line, may make sense.
A Winnipeg Transit spokeswoman confirmed the city’s main reason to not pursue light rail transit was to save money. However, the BRT system also benefits from creating routes that can be shared with other buses, while the smaller vehicles may also allow more frequent pickups than some LRT systems, Alissa Clark said in an email.
Clark said each kilometre of an LRT route would be expected to cost two to four times more to build than a BRT kilometre.
And while the Winnipeg Transit Master Plan calls for bus rapid transit infrastructure, such as bridges and tunnels, to be designed to fit trains in the future, “there would remain a significant cost to retrofitting the line,” wrote Clark.
However, the potential cost shouldn’t stop Winnipeg from considering the idea, according to Jino Distasio, a professor of urban geography at the University of Winnipeg.
“We have fallen decades and decades behind other cities… that aren’t necessarily that much bigger than what we’re going to be… The traffic is going to continue to get worse and worse and worse, unless we have a credible alternative to the automobile, paired with good planning,” said Distasio.
While he acknowledged a complete light rail system would require a “generational capital investment,” the professor said it may be warranted.
“If Winnipeg truly wants to be a competitive city, we at least have to have a very vigorous debate again about this… The fundamental difference from all the previous discussions, going back even into the 1970s, is the fact that the last 20 years have been like no other for this city (with substantive growth).”
Coun. Matt Allard, chairman of council’s public works committee, said he’s open to the discussion — though he stressed the current blueprint must remain the top priority.
“I’m certainly open minded to the idea, but also mindful that we need to charge ahead with the master plan,” said Allard. “If there was a light rail transit project to be considered, it’s got to make sense in terms of our tax dollars, in the staging and where we’re at (with) the plan, city-wide.”
Coun. Jeff Browaty, finance committee chairman, said he remains convinced the current plan is the best option.
“To build a (light rail) network that would actually be serviceable, that would actually go far enough out to be useful, it’s too expensive,” said Browaty. “I still think a better investment in time and resources is to provide more frequent service to more places throughout the city network.”
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.