Winnipeg city officials heard questions and concerns about the $155-million Waverley Street underpass on Friday afternoon, with at least one concerned citizen criticizing how the project has been planned and whether it's worth building at all.
Ken Klassen, an engineering technologist who works on massive infrastructure projects, appeared before a special meeting of the infrastructure renewal and public works committee to argue that the project is poorly reasoned out and lacking a decent cost-benefit analysis.
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Klassen said every level of government is borrowing a lot of money to build the Waverley underpass, which he says costs nearly double what the Plessis Road underpass cost, and triple that of the Kenaston Boulevard underpass.
He told councillors he tried to access the city's Build Canada Fund application for the Waverley project, but he was told to file a freedom of information request for it.
"I was flabbergasted. The city's policy is crystal clear, that they have to do a financial cost-benefit analysis," Klassen said after the meeting.
"The administration has taken it upon themselves, with no public debate, no approval from council or the mayor, to not do that, and that's stunning. You're going to spend $155 million [on a] project and not do a proper financial analysis?"
Klassen accused the city of hiding information about the underpass project. He also called on officials to improve how the public can participate in major city projects.
City officials told the committee that the Waverley underpass is much more than just a roadway, and cost-benefit criteria for the project focused heavily on safety in what is a busy intersection.
Doug McNeil, the city's chief administrative officer, said project tenders were "completely fair to all consultants" who bid on it.
The committee was told that the city doesn't conduct economic cost-benefit analyses on many projects. McNeil said the Waverley project provides "non-tangible" benefits such as reducing commute times and cutting the amount of greenhouse gases in the air.
"I mean, there's [a] tremendous number of benefits to the citizens of Winnipeg by doing a project like this," he said.
The city has estimated that 30,000 vehicles cross the train tracks at Waverley Street and Taylor Avenue everyday.
The rail crossing has long been the bane of drivers, who are often lined up waiting on one of the dozens of trains that cross Waverley at that spot every day.
'This process just stinks,' says councillor
At Friday's meeting, Old Kildonan Coun. Devi Sharma said she's concerned that she and other councillors have had few briefings with city staff about the underpass project.
McNeil said timing is critical for the Waverley project, its scope has not changed, and council is being sufficiently briefed.
"It was discussed at the last council meeting so from our perspective, I guess it wasn't necessary," he told the committee.
But Sharma said a separate seminar should be held to brief all councillors, not just those on the committee.
"Perhaps other councillors don't feel it was adequate, either, but we haven't checked with them," she told McNeil.
"I'm not saying this is not a valuable project, but the process just stinks."
The Waverley underpass project will be put to a vote later this month.