Tired of waiting for the green light from the City of Winnipeg, a local electrician has taken matters into his own hands, installing a solar-powered beacon in a Westwood school zone.
Chuck Lewis, general manager of Expert Electric, has been trying since 2017 to convince the city to install flashing amber warning lights in its 30-km/h school zones, going so far as to offering to donate the equipment (at an estimated cost of $1.2 million) as a "gift."
"If (the city) would have started when we first suggested it, half of Winnipeg would be complete," he said Thursday morning by the new light stationed at Winnipeg Mennonite Elementary.
Last fall, the city agreed to purchase and install the lights on a pilot basis, with the idea of expanding installation. Since then, however, the lights have sat in Lewis's shop, waiting for the go-ahead.
Seeking to make a statement and speed up the process, Lewis and some assistants went out into the cold Wednesday night and installed one of the light systems, which he says costs $3,500 and took about a half-hour to program.
A City of Winnipeg email Thursday to the Free Press indicated his message had been received — but there was still a ways to go until the light installations could be conducted through city channels.
"We are aware of the installation," communications officer Ken Allen wrote. "While we recognize that it's taking some time to conclude the agreement, we're confident that it will be finalized this spring.
"Once an agreement has been finalized, we'll determine a rollout/installation schedule."
Allen said staff have been testing one of the lighting units at a city facility to "review their reliability."
Lewis's light fight is the latest example of Winnipeggers taking on work they feel the city should already have done.
In December, the city moved to shut down a footbridge in Omand Park until spring, saying ice removal would be difficult without causing further damage to the structure. A pair of Wolseley residents promptly cleared the bridge with spades and picks in a few hours.
That action led bridge planning and operations engineer Darren Burmey to email city communications staff: "Actions of the citizens to remove signing and barricades and ice is reckless and should be dealt with." (A freedom of information request filed by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation made public city staff emails on the subject.)
"If people are presented with an obstacle that they normally count on government to deal with, and the government doesn’t deal with, it’s not surprising they would try to fix it themselves," federation director Aaron Wudrick told the Free Press of the bridge snafu.
When he first approached the city on the subject of school zone speed warning lights, Lewis said he was told to take matters up with the province; only to have the city take an interest once again in 2019, when Coun. Kevin Klein brought the offer to the Assiniboia community committee.
The committee endorsed it, and recommended the offer to the property and development committee. Shortly after, officials said the city had accepted Lewis's offer, and began testing the lights (which have also been used by the City of Toronto) for a month-long trial.
That gave Lewis some confidence, but since then, the project had fallen back into limbo, he said.
As Lewis spoke Thursday to reporters, Klein (Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood) pulled up in his sedan, emerging to pronounce his support for the vigilante light installation and disappointment in its delay.
"I think this is the result of weak leadership and an abundance of red tape," Klein said. "This will save lives. There’s no reason why it’s taking this long."
Erin Metcalfe, who lives in the house alongside the flashing light, was home with her two children when Lewis and his crew arrived Wednesday. She said she assumed the city was doing some maintenance and had no idea what was being installed or why.
On Thursday, she said while it’s too early to know what impact the warning light will have, the new technology was welcomed. "I think it’ll bring attention to the (school zone) sign and alert people that they need to slow down."
Lawrence Hamm, superintendent and chief executive officer of Winnipeg Mennonite Elementary, was supportive, as well. He said there have been a few close calls with pedestrians and vehicles near the school in recent years.
"Our lead bus driver said he saw people hitting the brakes (approaching the new light)," Hamm said. "I think anything we can do to make school zones safer is a good thing."
City spokesman Allen said there were "no immediate plans" to remove the Westwood light, however, it might need to be relocated or modified to conform to industry standards.
Welcome news for Lewis, who indicated he didn't want to fight city hall any more.
"I want to provide a service," he said.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
Updated on Thursday, February 6, 2020 at 4:11 PM CST: Writethru.