It’s a tidal wave of common sense, aimed at changing minds.

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This article was published 15/10/2018 (1356 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


It’s a tidal wave of common sense, aimed at changing minds.

The "Team Open" campaign — the businesses, lobby groups and individual activists that want to reintroduce pedestrians to Portage Avenue and Main Street — made a startling proposition Monday that could change the debate over the future of the intersection, less than 10 days before Winnipeggers go to the polls.

The Team Open proposal is to turn Fort Street (between Assiniboine and Portage avenues), along with parts of Notre Dame Avenue and King Street, into a dedicated, north-south transit mall, similar in many ways to the east-west Graham Avenue facility.

Graham Avenue is only used by Winnipeg Transit and City of Winnipeg emergency vehicles for five of the nine blocks between Vaughan and Main streets. The last block before Main Street and the three blocks between Vaughan and Carlton are where regular vehicles are allowed to co-exist. The Team Open proposal leaves open the possibility regular vehicular traffic might share portions of the proposed Fort Street transit mall, particularly where they require access to parking garages and other roads out of downtown.

Either way, the idea would be to remove the majority of bus traffic that currently runs along Main Street north and south of the intersection of Portage Avenue in an effort to reduce overall traffic volume.

Former mayor Glen Murray, who moved back to Winnipeg after a political career in the Ontario legislature, raised the idea of the Fort Street transit mall with Team Open recently. Murray said during his time at city hall (1989-98 as councillor, 1998-2004 as mayor), there were always plans to establish a north-south transit mall to complement Graham Avenue, although no specific initiative was ever devised.

However, the need for a north-south bus route has never been more pressing. He noted dedicated transit malls become magnets for private investment, helping to turn empty lots into residential or commercial development. Fort Street certainly could use a boost, he added.

"This could become another backbone for residential and commercial development," Murray said.

Forget the oft-divisive debate that has taken place during the 2018 civic election campaign, and the impending referendum, and the bitter rhetoric that has polluted a lot of the legitimate debate. This new transit mall proposal is smart, and potentially game-changing.

First, regardless of whether Portage and Main is reopened to pedestrians, a Fort-Notre Dame-King transit mall will radically improve Transit service through the downtown. It focuses on mostly under-utilized traffic corridors to provide easier access for buses into the very centre. That will be good for anyone taking a bus that previously forced its way through the Portage and Main bottleneck.

Second, culling bus traffic along Main Street and parts of Portage Avenue will ease traffic volume for those who insist on bringing their vehicles downtown. (There would likely be a net positive impact on overall traffic movement even if the intersection is reopened to pedestrians.)

Third, a transit mall is one of the most affordable infrastructure projects a city could undertake. The major costs are for signage, transit signals and some street-scaping.

Fourth, it could save millions of dollars in collateral costs to Winnipeg Transit should Portage and Main be reopened.

The Dillon study provided the first, early estimate of direct and indirect costs of reopening the intersection at slightly more than $11 million; nearly half of that money was to be used on acquiring more buses and drivers to compensate for the slightly longer travel time through Portage and Main.

With buses travelling on a mostly dedicated north-south transit mall, those costs will be reduced. By how much, nobody is quite sure, but it seems a virtual certainty if buses are not delayed at Portage and Main, Transit will need fewer additional buses and drivers.

It’s an idea that makes a lot of sense. Whether or not that has any impact on the referendum debate is unclear.

Although voter turnout Oct. 24 will likely determine the final outcome, early poll results have shown most Winnipeggers do not like the idea of reopening the intersection to pedestrians. According to the foremost critics of the reopening plan, the major concerns focus on overall cost and the impact on traffic flow.

The proposed transit mall, which allows for the gross majority of bus routes to be diverted, would have a profound impact on traffic through the intersection.

On cost, the Free Press revealed last week work needed to repair the underground concourse beneath the intersection will require the removal of the pedestrian barriers. If early engineering reports are any indication, the repairs on the concourse will require the entire intersection to be dug up at some point.

That significantly alters the whole debate about cost. The sidewalks and plazas around Portage and Main would have to be rebuilt after work on the concourse is complete. The city would actually save money by not rebuilding the pedestrian barriers.

What’s left in the quiver of the anti-open forces? Not much, really. Historic disagreement baked into the DNA of lifelong Winnipeggers over the value and impact of reintroducing pedestrians to the intersection.

And if that’s the major hurdle between the Yes and No forces coming to some sort of common ground, then maybe we’re closer than ever to a win-win solution.

The Yes side get its pedestrians; the No side gets better traffic flow.

The only question remaining is whether voters can somehow come together in an act of unity and do the right thing.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.