Winnipeg's Southwest Transitway opens with little ceremony and scarce ridership

The City of Winnipeg will open the 11-kilometre Southwest Transitway on Sunday, despite a massive drop in ridership because of the COVID-19 health crisis.

Full schedules planned despite 70 per cent decrease in passengers and closure of U of M

Winnipeg Transit Blue Line opens April 12, 2020 during pandemic. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

The completed Southwest Transitway, dubbed the Blue Line, opens Sunday with little of the fanfare or ceremony expected of a $467-million project.

Instead, the 11-kilometre route from downtown to the University of Manitoba and St. Norbert will open as transit ridership has plummeted in the face of the COVID-19 health emergency.

On March 9, passenger numbers dropped 7.67 per cent. By March 30, they had tumbled to 70.45 per cent against the previous year's ridership.

Dropping revenues from a massive decline in transit ridership could account for a potential loss of $25.2 million in fares by July, and an estimated $2.6 million in added expenses to sanitize and clean buses and pay overtime to drivers.

The bright spot in the transitway's story is that construction was finished earlier than estimated and under budget.

Winnipeg buses continues to operate on full schedules, and the new southwest rapid transit corridor opens Sunday. (Dana Hatherly/CBC)

The Blue Line is the centre of the city's new spine and feeder system that will see 14 new routes open, 10 others change and another 18 routes cease operation entirely.

Buses will run more frequently along the new corridor, which is connected to lower-frequency feeder routes that stop at transitway stations.

Waverley West Coun. Jance Lukes, whose ward is a major benefactor of the new transitway, finds it "incomprehensible" the Blue Line is being put into operation at full high-frequency service at this point.

"Virtually every major city in Canada has reduced transit service to lessen the financial burden. Cities are hemorrhaging revenues. It makes absolutely no sense to me why we'd be opening in full-service mode," Lukes told CBC News.

The chair of the city committee that oversees Winnipeg Transit agrees the timing for the launch of the new corridor is less than ideal.

"This is certainly not the circumstances in which I had ever envisioned an opening of the rapid transit line, with COVID-19, and we are seeing significant reductions in transit ridership these days,"  said St. Boniface Coun. Matt Allard.

St. Boniface Coun. Matt Allard said the Blue Line will run on a full schedule, and the city is looking at other changes to the overall transit system with decreased ridership numbers. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Allard says the Blue Line will open and run under a full schedule for the time being, but that may change.

"I think the transit department is looking at the whole network to look at what, if any, changes we should be bringing forward. You know, there's significant reduction in ridership and we're going to have to make sure we're making the right decisions with the limited dollars we have available," Allard said.

No rear-door entry for Winnipeg

Whatever kind of ridership the new system does get, those passengers won't see a health safety feature for drivers found in transit systems across Canada and in the U.S.

Winnipeg Transit continues to allow passengers to enter only at the front of the bus.

Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver brought in a rear-door entry policy more than three weeks ago. Calgary did so more than two weeks ago, and Edmonton followed just a few days after Calgary.

Cities across North America — from New York and Detroit to Los Angeles and Seattle — have had rear-door entry policies for weeks, and some have even stopped charging for rides.

Transit workers in several cities, including Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto and Halifax, have tested positive for COVID-19.

New York's transit authority is reporting more than 20 fatalities from the disease.

James Van Gerwen, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505 executive vice-president, changed his position on rear door entry for passengers. (Tyson Koschik/CBC )

The Amalgamated Transit Union has done an about face on the policy. Three weeks ago it was demanding the rear-door policy for passengers. Now it has left the choice up to the city.

"Safety has always been our number one concern for our drivers and the passengers," James Van Gerwen, the ATU Local 1505 executive vice-president, told CBC News.

"We've learned from other cities regarding that situation but ultimately, that is a decision from city council and for transit to make. And I really don't want to speak on their behalf on that."

The ATU does however want the city to run a full schedule of buses and routes, and not move to a Saturday operating schedule, as has been mused about publicly by Mayor Brian Bowman.

"We would like to see the buses running as much as possible — the more buses that are on the road right now means less passenger loads for them. So if we can keep on this full schedule as much as possible, that's something I would like to see," Van Gerwen said.

For now, Allard says Winnipeg Transit is sticking with the front door policy. He says shields installed on all the buses are giving drivers a good measure of protection.

Allard says other cities who've gone to a rear door protocol are having difficulty with so-called joyriders on their buses.

"It seems rear-door boarding and … essentially, de facto, not charging fares for buses has, for some jurisdictions, meant they actually had some people riding the buses that didn't actually necessarily need to be on the bus."


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