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Winnipeg mayor favours reopening Portage and Main after report warns fixing intersection would cost $73M

Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham now favours reopening Portage and Main to pedestrians, CBC News has learned, following a report warning repairs to the existing intersection would cost $73 million and cause four to five years of construction-induced traffic delays.

The mayor’s office has called a press conference for Friday morning without declaring the subject matter. Multiple sources tell CBC News the mayor plans to announce he would like to reopen the intersection to pedestrians in 2025 and permanently close the circular walkway underground.

Gillingham’s office declined comment. A draft version of a council-commissioned report, obtained by CBC News, pegs the cost of repairing the intersection at $73 million, not including repairs to the underground concourse itself or a new transit station the city plans to build at or near the intersection.

Those costs, the report states, are due to the need to keep the underground walkway open while the city upgrades the intersection.

Those upgrades include $29 million for excavating and replacing the membrane that protects the walkway from the elements, $13 million worth of work on water and sewer pipes, $13 million for new paving, trees and barricades above ground, $12 million for managing traffic during the construction period, and $6 million for building new stairs and elevators to access the underground concourse.

If new elevators and stairs aren’t included in the upgrades, the report says three property owners at the intersection would need to agree to provide access of their own to the underground concourse — and that would only shave $6 million from the estimated project cost.

“The public service recognizes that $73 million is a significant commitment of public dollars, most of which is associated with keeping the underground concourse in operation,” acting urban planning manager James Veitch writes in the report.

“It is also recognized that this is not a one-time fix – even a new membrane would have a service life of approximately 40 years, meaning that this undertaking would need to be repeated in the future.”

The report explains the construction disruptions would last four to five years because the entire intersection would be affected.

“Because the membrane is on the exterior of the structure, work requires complete excavation of the intersection,” Veitch writes.

“North-south traffic movement would be maintained with reduced capacity, including the right-only turn to westbound Portage.”

The report states Portage and Main is 10 per cent less busy than it was when the city studied reopening it to pedestrians in 2016 but remains Winnipeg’s sixth-busiest intersection.

Concrete barricades and no passage signs.
Portage and Main has been closed to pedestrians since 1979. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Approximately 72,000 vehicles pass through the intersection every weekday, the report states, adding about 2,100 people cross below it during a two-hour peak period in the middle of weekdays.

Should the city opt not to fix the intersection as it is and simply repair it without keeping the underground concourse open, the cost would be in the $20 million to $50 million range, subject to further study — plus $10 million to remove barricades and install sidewalks as well as pedestrian traffic signals, the report states.

Portage and Main has been closed to pedestrians since 1979, when the underground circus opened. Former mayor Glen Murray sought to reopen the intersection and held a contest to redesign the intersection. That plan was shelved by his successor, Sam Katz, who stated he wished to honour a 40-year deal with adjacent property owners to keep the intersection closed.

A graphic illustration of the 2018 plebiscite over Portage and Main, showing support for reopening the intersection in central neighbourhoods and opposition in outlying ones.
The heat map of the 2018 Portage and Main plebiscite shows only inner-city residents supported reopening it to pedestrians. (Jacques Marcoux/CBC News)

Katz’s successor, Brian Bowman, initially promised to reopen the intersection to pedestrians but shied away after a majority of Winnipeggers who voted in a non-binding plebiscite in 2018 indicated they opposed the idea.

Gillingham, who was elected mayor in 2022, has expressed little enthusiasm in the past for reopening the intersection. During the 2022 civic election, Gillingham said he was not interested in revisiting the issue.

The report about repairs to the intersection was intended to make traversing Portage and Main “a more welcoming, vibrant, and equitable experience,” Veitch wrote, in a nod to the intersection’s current overnight closures, which make it impassable to people who use wheelchairs.

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