Transit and open streets strategies move toward final vote at city council

Winnipeg’s transit master plan made stops at two committees of city hall this week, picking up a motion to look closer at dramatically lowering fares and pushing the massive overhaul of the system closer to reality.

It also faced some probing questions from one councillor on how the funding of the billion-dollar plan is calculated. 

The plan, passed by executive policy committee on Wednesday, would triple the number of households living within a 500-metre walk of a frequent bus route and radically change the route system across the entire city.

Rapid transit routes would be added and the bus fleet would move toward zero-emission models.

The plan would remodel Winnipeg’s transit system entirely by 2045, with the hope of tapping into the federal government’s Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program with a request for $539 million to help fund multiple projects.

The funding request includes $280.4 million to replace 100-110 diesel buses with zero-emission models.

The federal cash would also allow the city to replace aging radio and communications systems in its bus fleet, build a new transit garage, start design work on new rapid-transit routes and install new wheelchair securement fittings.

St. Vital Coun. Brian Mayes is uncomfortable with a series of estimates made in the transit master plan. (CBC)

Some of the estimates caught the attention of St. Vital Coun. Brian Mayes, particularly $200 million for the new transit garage and for a number of bridge projects and upgrades.

Much of that infrastructure work was given Class 5 cost estimates in the master plan, which potentially could mean as much as a 100 per cent increase in the final price tag.

Mayes, who was uncomfortable with the detail he was given on some of the estimates, voted against part, but not of all of the transit plan.

“I’m not going to apologize for asking questions about hundreds of millions of dollars of projects,” Mayes told his fellow committee members.

Motion to look at move toward $1 bus fare

Coun. Vivian Santos championed a motion calling for the public service to study a plan to reduce the cash transit fare by approximately 25 cents each year, starting in 2023, until the fare is $1.

Santos wants an analysis of the effect of such a steep fare decrease on revenues, capital and operating costs, and ridership.

“Mobility is a privilege in our society. We need to stop seeing that $3.05 (current fare) as just revenue … we need to answer these questions,” Santos told EPC members.

Point Douglas Coun. Vivian Santos says a low or no bus fare could attract much greater ridership. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Mayor Brian Bowman says he’ll support the motion to study a steep fare drop, but was concerned it would add to the burden of those who pay property taxes and already support Winnipeg Transit. He said the current $3.05 fare doesn’t come close to recovering the amount it costs to run the system. 

“Our subsidy has never been higher and the question I would be scrutinizing is how much more would it cost property taxpayers in addition to $104 million we are already putting into transit,” Bowman told reporters.  

Sunday/holiday bike routes for 17 streets, but don’t walk on them

Also headed to city council is a pilot program to increase the number of  Sunday/holiday bicycle routes or so-called “open streets” to 17 across the city.

A report to councillors by the city’s public works department found the routes closed to traffic last year violated the province’s Highway Traffic Act.

That effectively made thousands of Winnipeg pedestrians lawbreakers when they walked the streets for some physically distanced exercise.

Bowman told reporters he was “disappointed” in the finding, but when asked if he would tell residents not to walk on the streets if and when they are closed in May, he would only say to follow provincial laws. 

“I think it’s important to respect the legislation and we are trying to do our best to work in the context of the safety that’s imbedded in the Highway Traffic Act,” Bowman said. 

Bowman declined to answer what he called a “hypothetical question” about whether it would be prudent for Winnipeg police officers to hand out tickets to pedestrians because they are breaking a provincial law, but his Transcona colleague on city council wasn’t so reticent.

“There is woefully inadequate enforcement of Highway Traffic Act measures for speeding and other dangerous activities. Ticketing for walking on the street; I think we can use our services better elsewhere,” said Transcona Coun. Shawn Nason.

Last week, provincial infrastructure minister Ron Schuler told CBC News there was no possibility his government will consider changing the Highway Traffic Act. 

City council will weigh in on both the transit master plan and the bike routes next week.

The city of Winnipeg is a step from green lighting a massive Transit master plan, but likely will launch an extension of the Sunday/holiday bicycle routes that do not allow pedestrians to use the closed streets. 2:18

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