Voters to decide if Portage and Main will reopen to pedestrians

Winnipeg city council approved its first plebiscite in 35 years Thursday.

Councillors vote 14-1 in favour of plebiscite on October ballot

Should Portage and Main reopen to pedestrian traffic? Winnipeggers will get to vote Oct. 24. (Google Street View)

In October, Winnipeggers will get a chance to have their say — directly — on reopening Portage and Main to pedestrian traffic. 

Council approved the city's first referendum in 35 years Thursday afternoon. 

A motion to add a yes-or-no question on reopening Portage and Main was put forward by North Kildonan Coun. Jeff Browaty in June. It was seconded by South Winnipeg-St. Norbert Coun. Janice Lukes.

When it came to a vote Thursday, 14 councillors voted in favour. Coun. Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry) was the lone dissenter.

Do you support the opening of Portage and Main to pedestrian crossings? YES/NO- Text of the question to be asked of Winnipeg voters on Oct. 24. 

"It's more than an intersection," Gerbasi said. "It's an iconic symbol of Winnipeg, its history and its people; but it is also part of a residential neighbourhood, and an active neighbourhood, where people live, work and play." 

Gerbasi said she had mixed feelings about the plebiscite, citing Brexit, Colombians voting against a peace treaty and U.S. tax referenda. 

"It's usually a very simple yes or no answer. I'm not sure what that means; if it's no, is it no forever? Or is it no until we have another referendum?" 

"Even people who rarely or never go downtown — or even use that intersection, which is a lot of people — they will get to decide what happens in the neighbourhood of the downtown. And I'm not sure that's really fair. It seems unjust to me." 

People trying to get across Portage and Main explain how difficult it is:

The challenges of crossing Portage and Main

5 years ago
Duration 2:39
Winnipeggers won't just be voting for a mayor this fall, they will get a chance to have their say on reopening Portage and Main to pedestrian traffic.

Gerbasi, who will not be seeking re-election, said she hopes to see a lot of discussion about the issue in the coming months. 

Browaty echoed that statement, and acknowledged there are a few improvements that will need to be made to the underground concourse in order to make getting through the intersection quicker for people with mobility issues.

"We do have work to do ... for people with mobility issues. It is absolutely, significantly longer, as per the Dillon report from today, for people with disabilities or having physical mobility issues." 

"There are alternatives to go a block or two over, but that probably isn't quite good enough today." 

Mitch Krohn uses a wheelchair and has to cross the intersection on a daily basis. 

Mitch Krohn is in favour of opening up Portage and Main to pedestrians. (CBC)

He describes trying to get across the street using the underground in a wheelchair as "quite an adventure" and says he would like to see the walls come down around the intersection.

"It would be easier just to go across instead of trying to find an elevator, going down, then crossing underneath, and then finding another elevator up," he said.

"Many intersections are like it in the world and they can negotiate it, so it just takes the right planning."

There is no cost associated with adding a question to the municipal election ballot Oct. 24 because ballots have not been printed yet.

Opening the intersection has already been an election issue in the early days of the campaign.