Is it time for Winnipeg to get aboard LRT?


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Why does Winnipeg have no light rail transit (LRT)? Eleven cities across Canada have, or are about to have, LRT. Toronto started in 1954 and now has the most complex multi-modal transit system in Canada, integrating subways, elevated rail, surface rail and buses.

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Why does Winnipeg have no light rail transit (LRT)? Eleven cities across Canada have, or are about to have, LRT. Toronto started in 1954 and now has the most complex multi-modal transit system in Canada, integrating subways, elevated rail, surface rail and buses.

So, should Winnipeg start laying track for its version of LRT?

Compared to a standard bus on a roadway, important advantages exist in using rail on a defined track for urban transit. First, and most direct, is comfort. I recently took the bus to work for the first time in 40 years (packing a lunch for authenticity of experience), and it was both noisy and excruciating to lurch and bounce over Winnipeg’s uneven roadways.

Train travel is more refined, allowing one to read, or even write, while in motion.

A second benefit of LRT is how it shapes of city growth. Bus routes are moveable, so little incentive exists for entrepreneurs to build homes and retail near bus stops. Bus rapid transit (BRT), as Winnipeg is developing, features more permanent structures, but it is fixed-rail systems such as the Calgary and Edmonton LRTs that get the private-investment juices flowing to create retail and residential density around stations.

So, what are the challenges?

Obviously, cities need to build LRT systems on time and on budget, and enable land-use and building regulations to accelerate residential and retail development adjacent to LRT lines. A recent report on the gross mismanagement of the Ottawa light-rail system, and the looming deficit of the Edmonton light rail — which has seen only slight increases in ridership as a share of total commuter traffic — are bright flashing red lights that show light rail in urban areas is no slam-dunk.

LRTs are complex projects requiring sophisticated construction and management skills.

Also, just as COVID-19 disrupted so much of our lives, it has created transit deficits that have greatly impacted municipal budgets. Statistics Canada reports that for all urban transit systems in Canada, total revenues are currently running at about 60 per cent, struggling back from the 15 per cent low recorded at the start of the pandemic.

Winnipeg’s current transit shortfall is about $14 million; however, this is chump change compared to the loss of half a billion dollars forecast for Toronto’s transit system.

For many, transit also wastes time. In my experiment with the bus, the door-to-door travel time was three times as long as jumping into my car would have taken. When I drive, I am also not a slave to an app on my phone and can leave when I wish.

A parent with a couple of kids — say, one in ballet and the other in soccer — who also cares for aging parents will use the journey to and from work to make several side trips. A car also allows one to slip away at lunch to do errands and retrieve sick kids during the day. This is the lived experience that affirms, for most Winnipeggers, the rationality of using a car.

Another challenge facing transit is that post-pandemic, the daily trek from home to work and back has lessened, with remote work being spread throughout the day, reducing the need to move masses around the city. To be economically sustainable, transit needs high traffic volumes.

All of this suggests proceeding with an LRT system for Winnipeg is perhaps premature.

LRT becomes attractive to the car commuter when congestion slows the journey to work and recreation, and parking costs soar. Aside from Montreal and Toronto, which reached this point years ago, only Vancouver has reached this size, and Calgary might be on the cusp.

Winnipeg is probably 300,000 to 500,000 residents away.

Make no mistake — Winnipeg will reach a population more than a million faster than we expect. The many new immigrants attracted by our relatively low housing costs, as well as increased rural-urban migration by residents of First Nations communities keen to participate in the urban economy, will propel our numbers.

Proactively building LRT in Winnipeg in advance of immediate needs will prepare us for higher population, but this must be part of a co-ordinated strategy to enable housing and commercial development along the routes. It will also require active and committed fiscal support from federal and provincial governments.

Finally, we also must learn from Ottawa’s LRT fiscal fiasco and ensure we have the technical and management skills required to execute this.

Many things need to align to make LRT work in this city, and failure in funding, planning or management would condemn us to large expenditures with limited benefit. However, important benefits will accrue — if not for this generation, then certainly the next — if we can pull this off.

Gregory Mason is an associate professor in the department of economics at the University of Manitoba.

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