Opinion

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This article was published 25/6/2020 (249 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

They told us so.

Advocates for a pedestrian-friendly Portage and Main tried to warn voters in 2018 that they didn't have the whole picture. That fall, a plebiscite on whether to reopen the intersection was rushed onto the ballot in the civic election.

The "open" forces argued vehemently that more details were needed about the physical condition of the underground concourse, accessibility features and the brutalist barriers that keep pedestrians out of the intersection before any ballot proposition was to be considered.

And guess what? Two years after Winnipeggers voted to keep Portage and Main closed, we finally know the intersection — both above ground and below — needs to be dismantled and rebuilt. This information fundamentally changes the debate about reopening it.

A redacted copy of a report by SMS Engineering Ltd., obtained by the Free Press, indicates Portage and Main will need to be closed for extended periods to excavate the intersection and repair the concourse roof and membrane that is designed to keep moisture from leaking underground. That will likely mean removing the crumbling concrete barriers that prevent pedestrians from crossing the intersection.

Major improvements will likely be needed to improve the accessibility features of the concourse which are, the report said, "largely non-compliant" with city code and guidelines.

Many of those who opposed the reopening of the intersection were concerned about the effect on vehicular traffic. Advocates came forward with several plans to create dedicated transit malls, such as a portion of Graham Avenue, to divert bus traffic from the intersection.

Other concerns were raised about pedestrian safety. Again, advocates noted that Portage and Main is not the largest intersection downtown, and is not significantly busier than other major intersection where pedestrians cross at street level.

The only issue that 'open' proponents struggled to overcome was money.

Water accumulated in various parts of the underground concourse at Portage and Main in March. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Water accumulated in various parts of the underground concourse at Portage and Main in March. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Opponents such as Coun. Jeff Browaty — the man who has made a career out of tormenting downtown residents with his suburban sensibilities — moaned about the cost of removing the barriers. He claimed any money spent to reopen Portage and Main was a de facto cut to the regional roads budget. It's a false premise but at city hall, even the hint of reduced funding for road renewal is a death knell for any competing idea.

The trump card in this debate always was the rapidly decaying state of the underground concourse.

If the intersection and concourse needed major repairs, then this was never about the cost and trouble of simply removing the pedestrian barriers. The scope of work needed means this was a generational opportunity to redesign an intersection and amenity that is woefully past its best-before date.

If we have to endure several years of construction that would close huge sections of the intersection, why wouldn't we reconsider the design and role of the concourse?

Yes, Winnipeggers ultimately voted 'no' by a 2-1 margin, but they did so without knowing all of the facts. That makes this vote more than just a travesty; it was a crime against the integrity of public discourse.

Winnipeggers voted against removing the barricades at Portage and Main in a 2018 plebiscite. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Winnipeggers voted against removing the barricades at Portage and Main in a 2018 plebiscite. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Even worse, this sorry excuse for a plebiscite continues to affect the city even today, as witnessed by the incomprehensible efforts to hide the engineering report from the public.

The SMS report was commissioned in August 2018 immediately before the fall election; a final report was not submitted until the following May. However, it appears the report was not submitted for consideration to council or any committee. A spokesman for Mayor Brian Bowman said he had not seen the SMS report before it was published in the Free Press, nor was there any vote to keep it under wraps.

And yet, when the Free Press asked to see the SMS study in the spring, the request was denied. A reporter filed an application under freedom-of-information legislation, and eventually obtained a redacted copy.

There are several important questions that need to be answered about why this report was kept from the public.

First, why did the city not release the report when it was received? City officials claim this is standard practice, but this is a taxpayer-funded report on a key piece of public infrastructure that was the subject of a citywide plebiscite. That makes this report very much in the public interest.

A report by SMS Engineering Ltd. indicates Portage and Main will need to be closed for extended periods to excavate the intersection and repair the concourse roof and membrane designed to keep moisture from leaking underground. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

A report by SMS Engineering Ltd. indicates Portage and Main will need to be closed for extended periods to excavate the intersection and repair the concourse roof and membrane designed to keep moisture from leaking underground. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

Also, why were parts of the report redacted? City officials claimed some details would harm the city's negotiations with the private owners of the properties that surround Portage and Main and reveal "vulnerabilities" in the overall safety and security of the concourse.

Finally, where was Mayor Brian Bowman when this was going on? In 2014, Bowman campaigned to reopen the intersection, but rolled over like an aging Labrador retriever when Browaty dropped the plebiscite bomb. Now, he says he is neither concerned by the report or the fact it wasn't released.

The mayor is so over Portage and Main.

City hall provocateurs, such as Browaty, will never admit the plebiscite was undermined by a lack of important information on the underground infrastructure at Portage and Main.

But deep down inside, he and the others who campaigned robustly against the reopening of our most famous intersection know that this was not a fair fight. And that's pretty much the way they wanted it.

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.

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