Manitoba’s infrastructure minister overruled the advice of his own department to approve a highway access he was warned could increase collisions.
A recent briefing note provided to Doyle Piwniuk stressed that adding a new entrance onto 18th Street in the southwest corner of Brandon — one of the city’s busiest roads, also known as Highway 10 — would increase the likelihood of accidents and may degrade a wetland. The proposed access also features turning lanes that would be shorter than standard policy.
“Adding an intersection at this location will increase collisions,” the briefing note said, suggesting that access to a new proposed development could come from the less-busy Patricia Avenue instead.
Despite his department’s rationale, Piwniuk approved a permit for the access, with conditions, in August, according to a document obtained by CBC News.
The street access has been sought unsuccessfully since 2016 by VBJ Developments, which is behind a proposed mixed-use development including retail/commercial units and residential housing. It’s slated for the corner of an undeveloped parcel west of 18th Street and south of Patricia Avenue.
The development is a source of contention among Brandon ratepayers. It’s one reason, along with future growth, the city needs a $30-million debenture for wastewater infrastructure upgrades and a double-digit percentage increase in water rates annually.
Councillor wants to know minister’s rationale
Kris Desjarlais, a city councillor representing Brandon’s downtown, said the infrastructure department’s objections give credence to his push for another public hearing on the debenture — a type of unsecured long-term financing.
“I can’t speak for the minister. I would like to know what went into making that decision because I’m a councillor, I’m not an engineer, and I want to be assured that we are still following expert advice when we’re moving forward with this development,” said Desjarlais, who is facing two challengers as he seeks re-election in Ward 2 on Oct. 26.
Piwniuk did not provide much of an explanation for overruling his department. His spokesperson Miranda Dube said it follows further discussions with the City of Brandon and local stakeholders “regarding the continued rate of growth and development of the city.”
She said the access would support current and future development and result in economic development.
Piwniuk was not made available for an interview.
His spokesperson added the terms and conditions of the minister’s permit are being addressed. The access along 18th Street has since been endorsed through a city council resolution and the developer has submitted a traffic impact study and drainage plan, which are under review.
Desjarlais said the access point and subsequent development may be good for the city, but he has questions.
“It’s OK to disagree with your administration. We disagree with our administration sometimes when it comes to decision-making,” he said.
“But I always want to go into decisions eyes wide open and know that I’ve made this decision in good conscience, and that I’m not just using my own opinion without getting all the facts.”
At Desjarlais’s suggestion, city council voted last week to hold another public hearing for the $30 million to upgrade wastewater improvements for Brandon’s southwest corner. The city of 51,000 people requires the upgrades for current and future needs, but not exclusively the proposed VBJ development.
He said residents are worried by the number of major infrastructure projects the city is undertaking at once, including $129 million to upgrade its water treatment plant and $30 million for drainage upgrades in Brandon’s southeast.
Other levels of government may cover some funding, but “that’s a lot of borrowing all at the same time,” Desjarlais said.
Minister shouldn’t ‘ignore good advice’: NDP
Mark Allard, Brandon’s director of engineering, said the city wanted an access off of 18th Street for future growth, but officials estimated it could take decades to happen.
“I think in this case our desires, be it for maybe different reasons, have aligned with a little bit of VBJ’s desires as well,” Allard said, explaining the city wasn’t more picky about where the access went.
He said the Manitoba Transportation department’s standards around access points and length of turning lanes will likely be eased as that section of Brandon transforms from a largely rural area with a speed limit of 80 kilometres per hour into a slower-speed urban area.
NDP transportation and infrastructure critic Matt Wiebe said Brandon residents have a right to be concerned about the minister’s decision. The proposal for the highway access was first rejected in 2016 by the Highway Traffic Board, a provincial board that was later dissolved by the government.
“At the end of the day it shouldn’t be upon the minister to ignore good advice, ignore safety, ignore the impact that it’s going to have on water rates for the average person in Brandon,” he said.
“We need to make sure this is done in an open and transparent way.”
He alleged the Progressive Conservative government is doing the bidding of party donor Jared Jacobson, the owner of VBJ Developments, who donated $3,000 to now Premier Heather Stefanson’s leadership campaign last year.
Jacobson adamantly denied that suggestion in a short phone call.
VBJ argued that access from 18th Street is vital in attracting large commercial tenants to the location, according to a report to city council from Brandon’s administration.
The company initially agreed to an interview, but backed out.
Weighing city priorities
The city still needs to approve a final proposal for the development.
Coun. Desjarlais said he can be convinced further growth is worth the expense, but hopes it doesn’t come at the expense of the downtown and a worsening homelessness and addictions crisis.
“It has been frustrating sometimes at the kind of nickel and diming I think we do on council when it comes to the downtown … but we’re willing to double or triple the amount that we’re going to borrow on future development and cross our fingers that indeed we are going to reap the benefits from that,” he said.
“And maybe it will. We’ll see.”
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