Winnipeg businessman Art DeFehr says relocating the rail lines outside the Perimeter Highway would cost roughly $700 million but free up hundreds of acres of prime land for high-density housing and rapid transit and shrink the chances of a Lac-Mégantic-type disaster.

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Winnipeg businessman Art DeFehr says relocating the rail lines outside the Perimeter Highway would cost roughly $700 million but free up hundreds of acres of prime land for high-density housing and rapid transit and shrink the chances of a Lac-Mégantic-type disaster.

But Mayor Brian Bowman says relocating the rail yards and lines isn't a priority in the short term, and he needs to do more research to determine whether it might be one in the long run.

In a recently penned position paper, DeFehr, CEO of Palliser Furniture Holdings Ltd. and a longtime rail buff, argues the city must tackle the hundreds of kilometres of rail lines that entangle it, costing millions in bridges and overpasses and stymying the growth of a genuine intercontinental transportation hub.

Instead, DeFehr proposes a single right-of-way for the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railways that runs south of the Perimeter and includes a state-of-the art yard somewhere between Oak Bluff and Elie. That would reduce heavy-truck traffic off roads such as Kenaston Boulevard and free up corridors into every corner of the city for rapid transit, bike paths and infill housing. DeFehr said the most potent argument for rail relocation may be hazardous materials would no longer pass through the city, past residential neighbourhoods and through the downtown.

In 2013, 47 people were killed and half of downtown Lac-Mégantic was destroyed when a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in the Quebec town. The incident renewed fears about the transportation of hazardous materials by train, especially through populated areas.

DeFehr's five-page position paper, which has been circulated recently to local politicians, planners and business leaders, pegs the price of relocating the lines at $1 billion, a figure DeFehr said is just an estimate but one that's aligned with comments made by a senior CN executive.

Since the rail companies were originally given their land at no cost and paid no taxes for decades, DeFehr suggests CN and CP give the land back to the city as their contribution to relocation. DeFehr pegged the value of that land at $300 million, putting rail relocation's net cost to taxpayers at $700 million.

In the next several years, government will likely spend nearly as much on new bridges and grade separations alone, including at least $175 million on the Waverley Street underpass, $250 million on a wider Marion Street over the CP tracks and a new Arlington Street Bridge. Those costs are not factored into DeFehr's $700 million rail-relocation price tag.

"We need to 'stop the train' in a literal sense and stop building infrastructure that serves no purpose other than to dodge obstacles that should not be there in the first place," wrote DeFehr.

Rail relocation has a long and hesitant history that dates to the late 1970s when the city proposed extending Sherbrook Street over the CP yards into the North End. More recently, the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg has championed the idea, suggesting the first step is to do a feasibility study. But many say the move is a costly pipe dream contingent on the willingness of stubborn rail companies to relocate.

Armed with DeFehr's paper, Winnipeg Centre NDP MP Pat Martin raised the rail-relocation issue in a meeting with Bowman earlier this month. Bowman said Friday he hadn't yet read DeFehr's report, but planned to.

"It may be something long-term that may be something worthy of looking into, but it's not the top priority right now," said Bowman, adding fixing the roads is his main concern.

"I'm open to listening."

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca