February 24, 2018

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New group pushes rail yard move

'It's been a dividing line,' project's co-chair says

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Sel Burrows (left) and Charles Huband, co-chairmen of the Rail Yard Relocation Project, want to start investigating moving Winnipeg’s rail yards from its current location.</p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Sel Burrows (left) and Charles Huband, co-chairmen of the Rail Yard Relocation Project, want to start investigating moving Winnipeg’s rail yards from its current location.

A community activist and a former Manitoba Appeals Court judge have joined forces to revive the idea of relocating the Canadian Pacific Railway yards that divide Winnipeg.

Sel Burrows and Charles Huband say they were motivated by a common desire to improve the community by eliminating what they see as a major obstacle to the city’s growth.

Burrows and Huband are the driving forces behind a new community group, the Rail Yard Relocation Project, which sees the CP yards as a potential site for significant residential, recreational and commercial redevelopment.

“It is utterly amazing how everybody sees this as a real positive issue that, all it really needs is some community energy for people to take it seriously,” said Burrows, 76, a Point Douglas community activist.

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A community activist and a former Manitoba Appeals Court judge have joined forces to revive the idea of relocating the Canadian Pacific Railway yards that divide Winnipeg.

Sel Burrows and Charles Huband say they were motivated by a common desire to improve the community by eliminating what they see as a major obstacle to the city’s growth.

Burrows and Huband are the driving forces behind a new community group, the Rail Yard Relocation Project, which sees the CP yards as a potential site for significant residential, recreational and commercial redevelopment.

"It is utterly amazing how everybody sees this as a real positive issue that, all it really needs is some community energy for people to take it seriously," said Burrows, 76, a Point Douglas community activist.

Huband, 84, who sat on the appeals court from 1979 to 2007, said he doesn’t believe the century-old rail yards adequately meet the needs of a modern railway. "It’s been a dividing line between the North End and the rest of Winnipeg," Huband said. "It’s serving very little purpose for the CPR and none for the community, and it could be put to great use."

Relocating the rail yards to redirect train traffic appeared to be a certainty when the former NDP provincial government appointed former Quebec premier Jean Charest in January 2016 to lead a task force to study the issue.

However, the issue was dismissed as a political stunt by the incoming Tory government, which quashed the initiative after it took power later that year.

Burrows, who is more commonly known for advocating for crime and safety issues in his neighbourhood, said he was prompted to tackle the railroad after the Point Douglas residents committee approved a resolution that identified the yards and rail line as a threat to public safety.

Burrows said he reached out to Huband, who penned an op-ed column in the Free Press in 2017 saying the Pallister government had made a mistake by squashing the task force. Together, they invited several other individuals, which became the founding members of the pro-relocation group.

"We do not pretend to have all the answers," Burrows and Huband said in a press release distributed Monday on behalf of the group. "Our purpose is to make certain that creative minds are employed by government and private sector to develop a new and exciting area that adds distinction to the entire metropolitan area."

Burrows said informal discussions have taken place with local business leaders and federal officials, who he believes are supportive of the initiative.

Both Burrows and Huband said the major stumbling block is the provincial government, but they believe a convincing business case can be presented to get the needed support.

Municipal Relations Minister Jeff Wharton wouldn’t rule out funding for the yards relocation, but said Monday any discussion would have to include how such a project fits in with the city’s infrastructure needs.

"The debate over rail relocation in Winnipeg is long-standing and our government agrees that there needs to be a larger conversation on the city’s major infrastructure priorities," Wharton said in an email statement provided to the Free Press.

"We have committed to giving municipalities a ‘fair say’ on infrastructure investments and conversations with the City of Winnipeg on this and other infrastructure priorities will continue as we pursue a thoughtful, consultative approach that seeks the best return on taxpayer investments."

Huband said the rail yards were established at a time when the railroads were moving mostly smaller-sized goods across the country. Today, rail companies have kilometre-long container trains and the local yards aren’t suited for that kind of work.

Huband said his opinion of the railway was reinforced when he recently observed the yards from the Slaw Rebchuk Bridge.

"There was virtually no employees and no movement of anything. I think that’s typical," Huband said. "Delivering small parcels is now for FedEx and the post office. They would be far better off looking at (Winnipeg inland port) CentrePort where the railways can unload their cars."

The group plans to formally make a proposal to city hall in the new few weeks asking it to apply for federal funding for a feasibility study, which would determine the cost of relocation and the benefits that could be secured.

Burrows said governments have to consider any money spent removing the rail yards and compare it to funds that will be needed for future infrastructure projects such as replacing the Arlington Street Bridge which spans the CP main line and the yards.

Coun. Mike Pagtakhan, whose Point Douglas ward includes the rail yards, said he doesn’t want to see any debate on potentially relocating the CP infrastructure interfere with decisions that have to be made about the bridge.

Designs for a replacement bridge were released last week and, while city hall doesn’t have the $330 million estimated cost of a new bridge, Pagtakhan said he believes Ottawa and the province can be convinced to help fund the project.

"The idea (of relocating the yards) has merit from a planning perspective but… I’m just saying it’s not fair to say don’t do the Arlington bridge because we can still move the yards — that makes no sense," Pagtakhan said.

aldo.santin@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Aldo Santin .

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