Insiders know Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz has for years hosted friendly poker games at Canwest Park, home to his beloved baseball team.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/6/2010 (4075 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

Insiders know Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz has for years hosted friendly poker games at Canwest Park, home to his beloved baseball team.

Rumour has it the list of players includes some of the city's most important citizens. No one seems to know who the big winners are, but it's not hard to believe Sam holds his own at the card table. After all, Katz is a gambler when it comes to politics.

Katz's latest gamble involves $126 million in federal and provincial funding to complete the second phase of bus rapid transit (BRT), connecting Main Street to the University of Manitoba.

With the calm of a Texas hold 'em pro, Katz said no to the BRT money. Instead, he served notice he wants to use the BRT money to fund road expansions, extensions and rehabilitations.

Late last month, he tabled a list of a dozen infrastructure projects he would rather see completed before phase two of BRT. He then got council to support a motion calling on Ottawa and the province to redirect the rapid transit cash to these projects.

He further pledged to go to Ottawa to get additional money on top of the original $126 million to complete a rapid transit plan that may (emphasize MAY) involve light rail transit (LRT) instead of the BRT. If he can get the federal government on board, Katz has theorized the province will follow.

Is Katz crazy? Yeah, crazy like a risk-taking, gambling mayor.

Katz said he believes there are other pots of federal money that can be used to help fund an LRT line. The existing federal money, which comes from the mammoth Building Canada Fund, is better spent on basic stuff such as roads and bridges. "I am aware of other types of funding that are available for rapid transit," Katz said. "There's always green money that comes (from Ottawa) on a regular basis. Transit is a green thing."

When asked to identify the particular pot of money he's targeting, the poker player in Katz comes out in full force. "I'm not going there today."

Changing your mind twice, and then asking for more money from an as-yet unidentified funding pot may appear to be an unusual way of doing business. But this isn't the first time Katz has pulled the old switcheroo with federal and provincial infrastructure funding.

Back in 2004, shortly after he became mayor, Katz cancelled plans for a $50-million BRT project and lobbied Ottawa and the province to redirect the money to rebuild recreation centres.

It was an awkward, preposterous position but, thanks to the good graces of federal and provincial leaders, it somehow worked. Katz got the money redirected and abandoned rapid transit for the foreseeable future.

Turns out the foreseeable future lasted a couple of years.

In 2008, Katz was back on the BRT bandwagon, securing federal-provincial funding to build the first phase of a dedicated bus route from Main Street to the Jubilee overpass on Pembina Highway. Negotiations were completed on $189 million in tripartite funding for the second phase, connecting Jubilee to the University of Manitoba.

But that's where our story takes a turn for the bizarre. With a half-finished BRT route, Katz is now shifting focus to light rail. The mayor believes the costs of LRT have been massively overstated. He got council approval to spend $100,000 over the next 90 days on a new study to support this theory.

Federal and provincial sources suggested both levels of government have been left scratching their heads about Katz's most recent about-face on rapid transit.

Both federal and provincial officials say there is at present no "additional pot of money" from which municipalities can fund rapid transit. Both Edmonton and Calgary, for example, got federal money for rapid transit, and it came from the Building Canada Fund, the same fund Katz said should only fund roads and bridges.

The flip-flop has sparked a suspicion in both senior levels of government that perhaps Katz isn't trying to upgrade Winnipeg's rapid-transit plan. Sources from both levels of government confirmed there are concerns this is a strategy to delay and ultimately shelve all rapid-transit projects.

To date, neither the federal nor provincial government has indicated any willingness to redirect the BRT funding. If his LRT plan is rejected, which is a distinct possibility, would Katz just walk away from rapid transit and focus on potholes and underpasses?

Katz refuted that allegation. "I believe that Winnipeg deserves rapid transit and I've always been a believer in LRT," he said. "LRT will provide all the city needs for the next 25 years."

And that's what makes Katz such an intriguing figure. He can say things like this and it's nearly impossible to tell if he's bluffing.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

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.

   Read full biography
   Sign up for Dan Lett’s email newsletter, Not for Attribution