It seemed like such a good idea, it was a wonder it didn’t happen sooner.
Thanks in large part to Point Douglas community activist Sel Burrows, brighter lights were recently installed in the railway underpass at Higgins Avenue and Main Street, long one of Winnipeg’s most menacing grade separations. The new LED lights — protected by clear, unbreakable covers — have dramatically improved the conditions in what was otherwise a dank and creepy environment. The big question now is: what took so long?
The previous lights were not strong enough, and were encased in yellow-tinged covers that made little impact on the conditions in the underpass. This was, according to Mr. Burrows, a condition that existed for years with no remedy. It wasn’t until Mr. Burrows and his Point Douglas community warriors made inquiries that the situation started to improve.
Mr. Burrows would contact both Manitoba Hydro and the city to inquire about solutions. At first, Mr. Burrows said, no one was quite sure who was responsible; although the city pays for street lighting, the provincial power utility does the maintenance and repair work. Ultimately, the city and Hydro stepped up with new lighting solutions that have substantially improved conditions beneath the railway crossing.
The fact that this problem existed for years within eyeshot of 500 Main St. — otherwise known as Winnipeg City Hall — is cause for concern.
Mayor Brian Bowman and various members of city hall have shown interest in improving other downtown intersections and infrastructure assets, not least of which is the plan to reopen Portage and Main to pedestrian traffic. Apparently, while they were dreaming of throngs of pedestrians dashing across Canada’s windiest intersection, the mayor and council could not see a more pressing need located just a few blocks north of their centre of operations.
The Main and Higgins underpass is connected to a wide range of civic planning issues. The inability of local and provincial governments to devise a long-term plan to relocate rail lines is certainly at the top of that list. Without a concerted effort to rid the centre of the city of railway traffic, we will never get a chance to remove the underpass, an incorrigible piece of infrastructure if there ever was one.
That is a shame, because the underpass serves as a physical and metaphorical barrier that separates Winnipeg’s downtown, a recipient of huge gobs of taxpayer money, from the fabled North End.
Political and public interest in things such as infrastructure improvement and residential development dies when it reaches the south entrance of that dreaded underpass. There is no way to beautify the underpass, or turn it into a public amenity, because it is what it is: a utilitarian conduit for vehicular traffic to pass under the rail lines.
Given that the underpass may well be with us for generations, the city should undertake immediate efforts to further improve on the work done to date. Mr. Burrows claims his group has many more ideas on how to make the underpass less threatening, including more frequent cleaning, doubling the number of existing lights and perhaps luring the Winnipeg BIZ street safety patrol to make regular visits.
As they dream of tearing down barriers at a storied intersection just to the south of City Hall, the mayor and council would be well advised to make it a priority to undertake as many improvements as possible to the underpass to the north. While the former is a want, the latter is most definitely a need.