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City's rail lines the real problem

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/3/2015 (2014 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

This week, Winnipeg city council identified a $175-million underpass on Waverley Street -- needed to move commuters under a rail line south of Taylor Avenue -- as its most pressing infrastructure need.

Think about that. Of all the infrastructure so desperately needed in Winnipeg, this grade separation is ranked as the No. 1 project when Winnipeg applies for federal support under the Building Canada Fund.

That's pretty surprising given the Waverley underpass, like its close cousin, the Kenaston underpass, is a colossal, obscene waste of taxpayer money. It is a sloppy, Band-Aid solution to a problem that has nothing to do with vehicular traffic.

Yes, the traffic backups on Waverley, where suburbanites are trapped trying to get in and out of downtown, are awful. But it's not the real issue.

The traffic backups are a symptom of a much larger problem, which is the city's complete and utter failure to move the bloody rail line.

This is a city held hostage by its rail lines. Motorists have fumed for years about being stuck at all times of the day and night as lengthy, slow-moving trains meander across some of Winnipeg's busiest streets.

This experience typically kicks off a political chain reaction: Citizens complain to their city councillors, who then complain to council, which then complains to the provincial government and, before you know it, the city, province and federal government are spending hundreds of millions of dollars so motorists can drive under the rail line.

It never seems to occur to anyone there is federal legislation set aside specifically to address the root of the problem. To be fair, the Railway Relocation and Crossing Act was mentioned repeatedly by former mayoral candidate Robert-Falcon Ouellette as a lever to relocate rail lines and repurpose the land.

Ouellette's grasp of the act and its impact may not have been entirely on the mark, but it is a real thing, and it could, theoretically at least, be the lever needed to rid the city of the rail lines that clog traffic and provoke councillors into wasting millions of dollars on underpasses.

It's only theoretical because the act has not been used in 30 years, not since Regina relocated a core-area rail yard and redeveloped the land. Even so, the act as written is a powerful tool in the hands of a motivated government.

Mary Jane Bennett, a transportation expert with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, says the RRCA provides municipalities and provinces with the powers to expropriate railway lands. The act requires any relocation plans be financially neutral for the railways; they can neither profit nor suffer extraordinary costs from any plan to move rail lines or yards. If the municipality and province meet these requirements, Ottawa can cover up to 50 per cent of the total costs.

Right now, Bennett is working with White Rock and Surrey in B.C., which are preparing an application under the RRAC to relocate a rail line near the White Rock waterfront. Bennett said the total cost is estimated at nearly $400 million. However, unlike single underpasses or bridges to relieve traffic congestion caused by railway crossings, relocation has multiple benefits, Bennett said.

Removing rail lines and yards from urban centres opens up new and valuable land for redevelopment, she said. It also means dangerous, potentially combustible freight is no longer moving through densely populated communities. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it almost always means faster, more cost-effective operations for the railways, she added.

The White Rock-Surrey application, which could make its way to Ottawa by the end of the year, could ultimately pave the way for a new generation of urban redevelopment. Ottawa would still have to find the money for RRAC projects, and currently the Conservative government seems happy to funnel all infrastructure projects through the Building Canada Fund. And there is not enough money in that fund to make any real contribution to rail-line and yard relocation.

The key lesson for Winnipeg city council is the White Rock-Surrey relocation campaign began with motivated municipalities that were simply tired of living with the noise, mess and danger posed by a rail line running through an urban centre.

Mayor Brian Bowman has talked about changing the culture and mindset of the city and its government. Few gestures would go further in making those changes than stopping the Waverley underpass and other pointless infrastructure projects that seek to go over, under or around the real problem, which is the continued existence of rail lines running through the city.

In his pursuit of a new and improved city hall, Bowman already knows infrastructure needs are great, and taxpayer money is short in supply. And that spending $175 million on a Band-Aid is obscene.

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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History

Updated on Thursday, March 26, 2015 at 12:14 PM CDT: Adds call for info on traffic-blocking trains

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