Let’s not skimp on rapid transit

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It's taken Winnipeg a generation to build the first leg of a rapid transit system. You might think that settles the matter, and that now we are down to inconsequential details. On closer examination, however, it becomes clear that many important decisions remain, items that could make the difference between a successful rapid transit system and a white elephant. These decisions relate to accessibility and connectivity.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/07/2009 (4840 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s taken Winnipeg a generation to build the first leg of a rapid transit system. You might think that settles the matter, and that now we are down to inconsequential details. On closer examination, however, it becomes clear that many important decisions remain, items that could make the difference between a successful rapid transit system and a white elephant. These decisions relate to accessibility and connectivity.

As members of the Winnipeg Rapid Transit Coalition, we have been talking to transit officials and city politicians about the central issue of the system’s accessibility, but have so far been unable to reach agreement on the question of whether the first leg of the southwest rapid transit corridor will be built in such a way as to enable cyclists to move safely back and forth between the South Osborne neighbourhood and downtown.

The rapid transit line will run parallel to a rail line and, unless there are proper overpasses or underpasses to allow cyclists and others to cross that rail line, many potential riders will find stations and cycling paths either inaccessible or dangerous to get to. City officials respond that the city cannot afford an overpass. The cost of an overpass, according to one estimate, is $14 million. As members of the WRTC, we say that is a significant investment, but not a great deal in comparison with the benefits of an accessible and connected rapid transit and active transportation system.

We ask ourselves a question that is both simple and significant: Is rapid transit just a cost or is it also an opportunity? Unquestionably it is an expenditure. However, the rapid transit line, and the associated active transportation corridor, offer:

“ö Improved mobility for all Winnipeggers, many of whom cannot afford cars, or prefer not to use them unnecessarily.

“ö Reduced pollution and greenhouse gas generation.

“ö A beachhead in the battle for more infill and transit-oriented development and against Winnipeggers’ almost-total dependence on cars for much of their transportation.

These are public benefits that require investments, but make Winnipeg a more liveable city.

In all of this, there is no serious disagreement between the WRTC and the city. The city is, finally, investing in rapid transit and active transportation. Our point, however, is in the degree to which we see rapid transit not only as an investment in a more liveable and sustainable city, but also as a major development opportunity. A properly constructed rapid transit system yields development opportunities that can generate enough revenue to dwarf the costs of the access on which that revenue will depend.

To a degree, city leaders understand this, but so far they fail to grasp its full significance. Their comprehension of the concept of a rapid transit system as a development opportunity is evident in the fact that the first leg of the system will be financed by a TIF, short for tax increment financing. That’s another way of saying financing out of future revenues. The first rapid transit line will be paid for out of the revenue that will be generated by the Fort Rouge Yards neighbourhood, a new neighbourhood on currently empty land that will be served by the rapid transit system.

In other words, the transit line produces development opportunities, and the tax revenues that those opportunities generate will pay off the money borrowed to build the line.

What the city seems not to have grasped fully is that the primarily residential South Osborne neighbourhood is only the tip of the potential development iceberg.

If the city provided for access across the rail line, a world of additional development opportunities would open up along the adjacent east side of Pembina Highway. Currently, that stretch of land is home to a strip of relatively low-density commercial development, a lot of surface parking and, apparently, a significant proportion of empty land.

With ready access to a rapid transit line, well connected to the centre of the city and the University of Winnipeg, and later to the University of Manitoba as well, that land could be redeveloped into a much higher density commercial development, or some mix of commercial and residential development. The revenues that could be generated by such development would dwarf the cost of overpasses.

As a bonus, the additional riders who might use transit would improve the viability of the city’s transit system as a whole.

What we’re saying, therefore, is really very simple: It’s crazy to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a rapid transit line and then to slash its potential benefits in order to save a few millions. Let’s make it accessible and connected and build it right.

Christopher Leo is a professor of city politics at the University of Winnipeg. Jonah Levine is marketing manager of an environmental technology firm. Both are members of the Winnipeg Rapid Transit Coalition.

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