It has been talked about for decades — studied, shelved and restudied by an ever-changing lineup of politicians and bureaucrats.  But now the planets may finally be aligning for Winnipeg to join Canada's other big cities in developing a rapid-transit system.

New federal funding, renewed interest from the mayor's office and demands from a vocal group of transit supporters could set the stage for the first small step — a 3.4-kilometre bus-only road from downtown to Jubilee Avenue in the city's south end.

"Our view is that there have been plenty of studies done," says a frustrated Paul Hesse, head of the Winnipeg Rapid Transit Coalition. "The City of Winnipeg has approved a plan for rapid transit, and the levels of government should just fund that plan."

The group submitted a 1,500-name petition to city council earlier this year demanding that the project finally move forward.

But even the short bus-only road, with an estimated price-tag of $70 million, is proving to be contentious in a city with other pressing infrastructure needs and where car culture is king.

Some residents feel the true cost could end up much higher and think the money might be better spent on fixing winter-battered streets.

Ottawa system eyed

Lacking the type of oil money that helped pay for light-rail services in Edmonton and Calgary, Winnipeg is eyeing a system similar to the Transitway bus service in Ottawa, where buses speed along dedicated roads in the outskirts and special bus-only lanes downtown.

Barry Prentice, a professor at the University of Manitoba's Transport Institute, remembers talk of a similar roadway in Winnipeg's south end in the 1970s. The idea was never implemented, partly because of cost concerns.

"The short answer of course is money, but the longer answer has to do with simply a political commitment and a decision to do this," Prentice said.

Former mayor Glen Murray revived the idea of a lengthy rapid transit system in 2001 but did nothing about it before quitting three years later. His successor, Sam Katz, deemed Murray's plan too expensive and ordered another study.

After public consultations, which showed Winnipeggers divided over whether to spend money fixing potholes or building bus roads, Katz accepted a task force report that suggested the less ambitious 3.4-kilometre bus road as a starting point, along with improvements such as heated bus shelters to help riders bear the city's –40 C winters.

"The whole idea is to make improvements that will make it more desirable to take transit," Katz said.

No dramatic change under Katz plan: Prentice

His idea got a boost this spring when the federal government announced $17.9 million in funding for Winnipeg — a pot of money that could conceivably be used for a variety of bike paths or rapid-transit projects.

Critics say a slightly improved bus service with warmer shelters won't be enough to make people give up their cars for the daily commute — especially in a city that motorists can drive across in 25 minutes.

Winnipeg drivers sometimes face traffic "jams" that add five or 10 minutes to their commute — a far cry from the gridlock seen in bigger cities such as Calgary or Toronto, where public transit is usually faster than a trip by car.

"[Katz's plan] is tinkering at the edges. It'll improve things, but it's not going to make the kind of dramatic change you get from a real rapid-transit system," said Prentice.

Prentice, Hesse and other transit proponents dream of a sprawling network of bus-only roads and large enclosed buildings at major bus stations, similar to those found in Ottawa, where commuters could sit in comfort.

"Rapid transit has real stations. A good system would also realize the development potential around rapid- transit stations, where you could build condos and apartments," said Hesse.

Province mum on rapid-transit funding

They don't lay all the blame for the lack of progress at city hall's feet. Prentice points out that Ottawa's Transitway was funded 75 per cent by the Ontario government, even as costs skyrocketed during construction.

Calgary and Edmonton also received a lot of provincial help for their systems.

The Manitoba government has committed to pay half of everyday transit operating costs, but is not ready to say how much it would pay for construction of a rapid-transit system.

"We do have existing infrastructure commitments … roads and bridges," Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Steve Ashton said last month.

"But [rapid transit] is certainly on the agenda. We're in discussions with the city right now."