A key obstacle to some $740 million in potential funding for two major Winnipeg infrastructure projects has been removed.
After several months of public prodding by Mayor Brian Bowman, the Manitoba government has agreed to sign off on the proposals.
On Wednesday, Premier Heather Stefanson announced her government will approve an application to secure funds from Ottawa for the second, "biosolids facilities" stage of the three-phase, $1.854-billion North End sewage treatment plant upgrade. It will also advance an application to implement the first steps of the Winnipeg Transit Master Plan.
"We want to make sure that we move forward together and send a signal to the federal government that these issues are of great importance," said Stefanson.
The applications will now move forward for federal approval through the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program.
If Ottawa approves, the feds will pay $201 million for sewage treatment, the province will cover $167 million, and the city will provide $184 million. The feds would provide $203 million for transit, the province would pay $170 million, and the city would cover $165 million.
The projects have a total value of nearly $1.1 billion, once the city’s previously committed funds are factored in.
Stefanson joined Bowman at city hall for the announcement, one week after the city warned it was at risk of missing a Dec. 31 federal deadline for the sewage funding. A city report claimed missing it left Winnipeggers at risk of higher water rates and the city at risk of running out of sewage treatment capacity for future development.
The work was held up because the city and province could not agree on a public/private partnership for the project. The province pushed for that to involve private operations and maintenance, which the city rejected.
When asked if Wednesday’s announcement means the city can pursue a partnership that doesn’t involve that level of privatization, the premier said: "yes."
"Part of my new approach to things is obviously to empower ministers to do their jobs. In this case, we’re looking to the City of Winnipeg. This is a City of Winnipeg project, and we’ll look to them to manage that project," said Stefanson.
The mayor has long lobbied the province to approve the funding applications, arguing the sewage upgrade should have moved forward long ago. The province ordered the city in 2003 to reduce pollution coming out of the plant.
"I think everybody that cares about the health of our rivers and lakes would have liked to have seen much of this dealt with by previous administration, both here at the city and at the provincial level," said Bowman.
The mayor said he’s optimistic the federal government will give final approval to both projects. "Public transit is one of those ways that we help combat climate change, a key priority of the prime minister and the federal government."
The Transit master plan funding would cover the first key steps of a system overhaul expected to cost up to $1.5 billion.
The Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program request would pay for up to 110 zero-emission buses, a bus radio system, a new garage and the preliminary design of a rapid transit downtown corridor, as well as other infrastructure.
"What we would love to do is ensure that we move forward with as many electric buses as we can as a part of this because that will be part of our cleaner, greener Manitoba that I think we all want to see," said Stefanson.
After the tense and distant relationship former premier Brian Pallister had with Bowman — in which they met only once in more than a year — Stefanson told media earlier Wednesday her decision to go see the mayor was "sending a signal."
"I don’t have a big ego, where it’s ‘someone else has to come here’ and ‘we’ve got to do it here on our turf,'" Stefanson said. "I hope these turf wars are over. It’s time to go in a new direction."
Funding for Phase 1 of the sewage upgrades was announced in July. The city has not yet applied for funding to cover the third phase of the project, which would greatly reduce the algae-promoting nutrients that leave the plant and wind up in Lake Winnipeg.
— with files from Carol Sanders
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.