Winnipeg's $10M question is more about politicking than Portage and Main

The city has turned to a referendum on an investment in infrastructure well below the cost of many other ongoing projects in Winnipeg that have not faced such scrutiny. Why? For political points, Aaron Moore writes.

Why has a relatively inexpensive infrastructure project galvanized the public?

Voters will get the chance to weigh in on whether Portage and Main should be reopened to pedestrians. But what makes the intersection so different from all other projects in the city? (Trevor Brine/CBC)

This spring, Calgary's city council voted overwhelmingly in favour of holding a referendum on whether to submit a bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics.

The council's decision to hold a referendum outside of the election cycle, at an estimated cost of $2 million, largely stems from the significant disruption the Olympics would cause throughout the city and the massive price tag of more than $4 billion, half of which would be covered by taxpayers.

Whether an expensive referendum is the right way for council to assess residents' support for the bid, hosting the Olympics will have a clear effect on all Calgarians for years, if not decades, thus those same residents should have a say on whether the city goes forward with its bid.  

Last month, Winnipeg's council also voted to hold a referendum, on whether to open the intersection of Portage Avenue and Main Street to pedestrians.

In contrast with Calgary, the referendum will be held in conjunction with the upcoming municipal election, thus costing taxpayers little. In further contrast to Calgary, Winnipeg's referendum will focus on an infrastructure project that's expected to cost more than $10 million, and that will disproportionately affect some residents in the city.

Direct democracy

In the case of Calgary, the city is contemplating a massive investment in new infrastructure for a spectacle that often leaves cities worse off in the long run.

In Winnipeg, the city has turned to a referendum for an investment in infrastructure well below the cost of many other ongoing projects in the city that have not undergone such scrutiny.

Yet this is the project getting the option of direct democracy.

I don't work, live, or commute through the area, so in the end, whether the intersection is opened or not will have little impact on me. Why then should I have a say on this specific bit of infrastructure policy?

Some may argue that as taxpayers, we should all have a say, but if that is the case, why did we not have a referendum on whether to build the Waverley underpass — for more than 10 times the cost of opening up the intersection?

The ability to avoid trains on Waverley Street will have even less of an effect on me than opening Portage and Main, but given the relative cost of the two projects, as a taxpayer I'd choose to vote on the former.

Downtown residents, people who work downtown and commuters who regularly travel through the intersection will all be affected by the opening of Portage and Main.

However, for the majority of Winnipeggers, opening the intersection will have little impact on their lives, just as the Waverley underpass or the extension of Chief Peguis Trail will affect residents who live in adjacent areas far more than residents in the rest of the city.

Politics as usual?

So how did we end up here? What makes Portage and Main so different from all other projects in the city?

The push to hold a referendum on the subject came from two councillors, Jeff Browaty and Janice Lukes.

Given the location of his ward, a number of Coun. Browaty's constituents may commute through the downtown, and will, as a result, be affected to some degree by the opening of the intersection.

I would think far fewer of Coun. Lukes' constituents will be impacted, however.

I suspect the councillor's push for the referendum has little to do with commute times or cost. Animosity toward Mayor Brian Bowman and a hope that by pressing this issue it may negatively affect his chances at re-election seem more likely motivators.   

As for the mayor, who continues to support the opening of Portage and Main to pedestrians, I believe that his eventual decision to support the referendum is also largely a political ploy.

After his initial attempts to move past the question of the referendum did little to quell the media's interest in the story, I suspect he changed his position in hope that he would appease suburbanites opposed to the project, while retaining the support of downtown residents and urbanists who support the opening.

Time will tell if that was the right decision.

Why this 1 issue?

Downtown residents may see his choice as a betrayal, despite his continued support, while suburbanites may question the non-binding nature of the referendum given the mayor's stance on the project.

This leads lastly to Winnipeg voters. Why has this one issue so galvanized the public?

On the one hand, maybe most people are actually indifferent to the issue. This could well be the media making a mountain out of a molehill.

On the other hand, this issue could be indicative of a general animosity between suburban and downtown residents, something I've seen develop across a number of other cities in Canada.

If that is the case, this referendum does not bode well for the future direction of the city.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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About the Author

Aaron Moore

Aaron Moore is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Winnipeg and an adjunct professor in the department of city planning at the University of Manitoba. He holds a doctorate in political science and is an expert on municipal politics and governance.