Winnipeg Transit hopes to convert part of Via Rail's historic and underutilized Union Station into a rapid-transit node as the city's bus-corridor network expands to encompass multiple routes.

The city has a long-term plan to remove buses from an increasingly congested downtown stretch of Main Street and have them run instead along a pair of elevated, unused CN Rail tracks at the 105-year-old train station.

The plan calls for Union Station to become a central node connecting the existing Southwest Transitway, the forthcoming East Transitway and the Graham Avenue Transit Mall — and make it easier for people to reach The Forks without taking their cars.

"The idea is to remove buses from Main Street," said David Patman, the Winnipeg Transit engineer in charge of planning the East Transitway, a bus corridor that will eventually connect downtown to Transcona.

"By running transit through Union Station, we can avoid traffic congestion downtown, have buses on their own dedicated corridors and create a link to future development at The Forks."

The Union Station plan is laid out in a city document prepared for consulting firms who wish to bid on a city study that will determine what land is needed for the East Transitway and where the future bus corridor will go.

Transit corridor map

A map of the Southwest Transitway and the forthcoming East Transitway. (Jamie Clemis/CBC)

Winnipeg Transit already has an agreement in place with CN Rail that will allow the city make use of existing Tracks One and Two, which run through Union Station parallel to Main Street. Those tracks currently house the Winnipeg Railway Museum, which would be moved to a new home, preferably at Union Station or elsewhere at The Forks, Patman said.

According to the `document, this new elevated stretch of bus corridor will include a Winnipeg Transit station within the existing Union Station shed and will also house a bike-and-pedestrian corridor that will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year.

Entrance to development at The Forks

The station would also serve as an entrance to forthcoming Rail Side mixed-use retail and residential development at The Forks.

The elevated busway alongside Main Street, meanwhile, would be connected to the Southwest Transitway, East Transitway and maybe the Graham Avenue Transit Mall by bridges that can carry two-way bus traffic in the short term and could be converted to light-rail use in the future, according to the city search document.

Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry Coun. Jenny Gerbasi, whose ward includes Union Station, said she's excited by the opportunity to better utilize the heritage structure, which was designed by the same New York City architectural firm that drew up plans for Manhattan's Grand Central Terminal.

"The station's recently been refurbished. It's beautiful. It's connected to The Forks. We're connecting our different transitways. It makes total sense," Gerbasi said in an interview.

"It makes transportation easier for everyone and for people to get to The Forks. The number of people who go to The Forks? So many more of them would be able to take transit more comfortably."

Plan would 'sexify' BRT

Forks North Portage CEO Paul Jordan, who's has spent years lobbying for the redevelopment of Union Station, also called the city plan exciting.

"Up to this point, it's only been an idea. I'm delighted they're taking a real look at it," Jordan said. "What it would do is totally sexify the BRT line. It would also turn Union Station on and create a vibrant front door to The Forks."

Jordan said the potential transit station would reduce the need for parking at The Forks and make it even more attractive for people to live at the forthcoming Rail Side development, which remains in its planning stages.

In the mean time, The Forks is moving its head offices from Portage Place into Union Station's north atrium later this year, Jordan said. Secondary offices currently housed at The Forks Market will move to the Portage Avenue mall, freeing up more room for retailers, he added.

Via Rail, which purchased Union Station in 1986, is receptive to discussing the redevelopment plans with the City of Winnipeg, said Mylène Bélanger, a public-relations advisor for the Montreal-based passenger-rail company.

"The Winnipeg Union Station is a beautiful beaux-arts station and we would welcome more people using it," Bélanger said in an email statement.

Winnipeg Railway Museum

Winnipeg Transit has an agreement with CN Rail to use Tracks One and Two, which currently house the Winnipeg Railway Museum. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

There is no cost associated with the proposed rapid-transit node at Union Station or the elevated busway. The winning proponent of the East Transitway design study — who the city expects to select in October — will prepare rough cost estimates, transit planner Patman said.

"We don't have the budget to build this corridor,"  he explained. "We're doing our homework so we will have an idea what it will cost."

Study to provide pros and cons

The study, expected to be complete by 2018, is intended to provide the city with the pros and cons of choosing one of two alignments for the East Transitway. It will either cross the Red River from downtown into Old St. Boniface or run from Point Douglas through Elmwood along a new Louise Bridge or another new span.

While Mayor Brian Bowman has promised to build six transitways by 2031, right now, the city only has funding in place to complete the Southwest Transitway, which currently runs from downtown to Jubilee Avenue near Pembina Highway. The $587-million second phase, which will extend the southwest corridor to the University of Manitoba's Fort Garry campus, is slated to open in 2020.

The East Transitway, whose initial phase will connect downtown to Regent Avenue at Lagimodiere Boulevard, is needed desperately to alleviate traffic congestion east of the Red River, said Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt.

"We have a massive amount of growth in Transcona and the growth is continuing," he said. "We either have to build, massive amounts of roads and grades separations, or we have to build alternative transportation such as rapid transit."

Wyatt said he would prefer to see the East Transitway be built as a light-rail corridor from the start, rather than upgrade it later on.