A Portage and Main primer: What you need to know before you vote

A referendum on Portage and Main will either pave the way for the barricades to come down or leave them in place for decades to come. Here's what you need to know about the proposed reopening.

How much will it cost? How will traffic be affected? You have questions. We have answers

Winnipeggers will vote whether or not to reopen Portage and Main to pedestrians on Oct. 24. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

In a matter of months, Winnipeggers will weigh in on whether Portage and Main is reopened to pedestrians or remains closed for decades to come. 

Like it or not, that's where you come in. 

The Portage Avenue and Main Street intersection has been closed to foot traffic since 1979; cement barriers send pedestrians who wish to cross the roads into an underground concourse.

Former mayor Glen Murray held a design competition to reopen Portage and Main in 2004, but property owners around the intersection were not interested. His successor, Sam Katz, balked at the idea the following year.

It returned to the table in 2014, when Brian Bowman ran for mayor. Bowman promised to reopen Portage and Main and received a mandate to do it, by virtue of a decisive victory. 

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But the complexities involved — property owners had to be consulted, the traffic impact had to be studied and political expectations had to be managed — meant no actual plan emerged until late last year.

That proved to be too late in the council term. Facing opposition during this election year, Bowman blinked and voted for a referendum on Portage and Main slated for election day in October.

What follows is what you should know before you vote.

How busy is it?

According to Winnipeg's public works department, Portage and Main is the city's third-busiest intersection. The intersection of Lagimodiere Boulevard and Regent Avenue is the city's busiest for motor-vehicle traffic, while the intersection of Portage Avenue and Moray Street ranks second. 

On an average weekday, 81,000 vehicles pass through Portage and Main.

The intersection is the only one of the city's top 10 busy crossings that's closed to pedestrians.

The City of Winnipeg does not keep statistics for pedestrian crossings at any of them, said Ken Allen, a spokesperson for the public works department.

Winnipeg's 10 busiest intersections, ranked by motor-vehicle traffic on weekdays. The measurements are on a 24-hour basis. (CBC News Graphics)

There are many perspectives on the presence of a major transportation node in the heart of a city.

Historically, Portage and Main was the confluence of two ox cart trails; it has served as a vital node since the birth of modern Winnipeg. 

From an urbanist perspective, heavy traffic has no place in the centre of a city, while street-level pedestrian activity can improve the sense of public safety and connect neighbourhoods.

On the other hand, financial districts in other North American cities — and Portage and Main is the heart of Winnipeg's financial district — tend to be among the most lifeless urban neighbourhoods.

From a logistics perspective, unimpeded commercial vehicle traffic allows for desirable economic outcomes.

Traffic effects

How would pedestrian access impede traffic at Portage and Main?

In October 2017, the city unveiled a plan to spend $3.5 million to fix crumbling infrastructure above and below ground at Portage and Main and begin the design work required to reopen the intersection.

On the same day, the city published a Portage and Main transportation study done by Dillon Consulting. This document now serves as the primary source of quantitative data and qualitative opinions about the positive and negative effects of reopening the intersection.

The authors of the study were very clear: Pedestrian crossings will affect motor-vehicle traffic at Portage and Main.

"There will be an increase in travel time through the area after the crosswalks are restored, primarily to the turning movements at the Portage and Main intersection as they must yield to pedestrians. This poses a risk to cross-city travel as congestion and variability will increase on average," the authors stated.

"This, however, should be balanced with the improvements to mobility for non-auto users and progress towards the city's goals of a multi-modal and sustainable transportation system."

The Dillon study says north-south traffic on Main Street — which makes up about half the motor-vehicle traffic at Portage and Main — will be unaffected by pedestrian crossings, even at the height of the afternoon rush hour. That's because pedestrians travelling north or south move parallel to traffic. 

The delays will be noticeable for motorists using turning lanes during the afternoon rush hour, however, especially those driving east on Portage Avenue.

Adding pedestrian crossings to Portage and Main will reduce the time it takes for north-south traffic to travel through the intersection during the afternoon rush hour, but create additional waits for cars in turning lanes. (CBC News Graphics)

For example, if you're driving east on Portage and turning left onto Main Street during the afternoon rush hour, it will take an extra two minutes with pedestrian crossings.

If you're turning right onto Main, you will be delayed by almost three minutes, and if you're heading straight through to Portage Avenue E., you will be delayed by nearly four minutes.

The worst traffic delay will occur if you are leaving the Fairmont Hotel on Portage Avenue E. and wish to turn right onto Main Street during the afternoon rush hour. This turn will take an additional five minutes with pedestrian crossings.

That said, the right turn onto Main Street from Portage Avenue E. is the least common traffic movement through Portage and Main.

The Dillon study authors say Portage and Main would still possess more capacity for vehicles than it needs most of the time, after pedestrianization.

"Portage and Main is still a very large intersection," the report says.

Winnipeg Transit impact

How would pedestrian access impede buses at Portage and Main?

Opening Portage and Main to pedestrians will have an even greater effect on Winnipeg Transit, especially during the afternoon rush hour, the Dillon study says.

"Transit service will be impacted during the p.m. peak hour, with clear increases in travel time for buses moving through the area, particularly those that make turning movements at Portage and Main," the authors wrote.

Opening Portage and Main to pedestrians would delay bus travel times significantly. Winnipeg Transit would have to buy more buses and hire more staff to compensate. (CBC News Graphics)

The afternoon-rush-hour delays in question range from 12 seconds to two minutes for all but one means of bus travel through the intersection.

After pedestrianization, it would take almost five additional minutes for a westbound bus to cross the intersection from Portage Avenue E. to Portage Avenue proper. It may be faster to cross the street on foot and get on a different bus on the other side.

Foot traffic

How would access to Portage and Main affect pedestrians?

Right now, it takes a pedestrian an average of four minutes to cross from one side of Portage and Main to another on foot, using the underground concourse.

If the intersection is opened to pedestrians, that crossing will take three minutes and forty-two seconds during the afternoon rush hour, Dillon predicts.

People on foot would no longer need to walk as far to cross the intersection, as pedestrians currently use a combination of escalators, stairways and elevators to go below ground and then return to the surface.

The reduction in travel time and distance would be more pronounced for people in wheelchairs if the intersection is open to them. 

Right now, it takes a person in a wheelchair an average of nearly nine minutes to cross from one side to another, using the underground concourse as well as elevators.

If the intersection is opened to people in wheelchairs, the crossing would take no longer for them than it would for a pedestrian on foot.

Opening Portage and Main to pedestrians will make crossing the street much faster for people who use wheelchairs. (CBC News Graphics)

The Dillon study authors also note safety benefits and risks for pedestrians.

"The underground concourse presents some concern for late night use in crossing Portage and Main currently. The paths through the underground facilities are circuitous and may not always be open or functional, which presents inconvenience and risk for late night pedestrians or those with mobility issues," the study says. 

"Restoration of the at-grade crosswalks will reduce these risks and inconveniences."

Opening Portage and Main to pedestrians will also place them at risk of getting hit by turning vehicles, says the study, which recommended the elimination of right-hand turns from northbound Main Street onto Portage Avenue E.

Other factors

What was beyond the scope of the Dillon study?

The loudest proponents of reopening Portage and Main say it will help revitalize downtown through pedestrian activity. They also point to the future need to connect different areas of downtown for people in foot.

The latter claim has merit, at least from a city planning perspective.

Right now, the Exchange District to the north and northwest of Portage and Main enjoys a lot of foot traffic, but other adjacent areas of downtown do not, especially after business hours.

The Forks, however, is planning to develop the Railside land and Parcel Four — two large empty parking lots east of Main Street — with an eye to a mix of commercial and residential development.

Winnipeg Transit has long-term plans to convert part of Union Station on Main Street into a rapid-transit node, with buses running above ground on tracks that currently house a rail museum. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

The city is also studying the idea of removing some Winnipeg Transit buses from the southern stretch of Main Street and placing them on unused rail lines east of Main. That section of track would become a seamless connection between the existing Southwest Transitway and the proposed East Transitway.

Up until this year, these plans existed in isolation. Council only recently voted to consolidate transportation planning and transit planning within the same study.

The Dillon study does not, however, conduct a cost-benefit analysis of reopening Portage and Main with a future planning perspective in mind. Its authors were asked only to assess the costs of reopening the intersection.

The price tag

How much would reopening Portage and Main cost?

The Dillon study pegged the cost of reopening Portage and Main at $11.6 million, which includes $5.5 million to purchase more Winnipeg Transit buses.

More buses would be needed to ensure passenger service across the city does not suffer as a result of delays at the intersection.

Dillon also suggested Winnipeg Transit's annual operating costs would rise $1.9 million a year because it would need to hire more staff.

The physical work involved in reopening Portage and Main would include removing barriers, some of which extend below the surface, building new sidewalks, replacing fire hydrants, and electrical and land-drainage work.

Proponents of reopening Portage and Main point out some of the infrastructure at Portage and Main, such as stairways and steps, already needs to be fixed. Opponents recommend the city just fix what's broken.

What else would $11 million buy?

Proponents of reopening Portage and Main say the city held no referendum before it approved major transportation projects such as the $121-million Waverley underpass, a project that is well underway.

City council has already approved spending up to $3.5 million to fix existing infrastructure at Portage and Main and begin planning its reopening. The latter plan is on hold, pending this fall's plebiscite.

While Winnipeg's budget does not call for spending on many big-ticket items this year, it does call for $116 million worth of road repairs and a number of other projects at or above $11 million that are not the subject of widespread public debate.

The Dillon Consulting study pegged the cost of reopening Portage and Main at $11.6 million. In 2018, council approved more than a dozen projects of similar size or larger. Here are a few. (CBC News Graphics)

For example, the city is building a new St. James Library at a cost of $11 million over three years, contributing almost $15 million to Assiniboine Park improvements over two years and improving fire-paramedic stations at a cost of $21 million over six years.

These are, of course, apples-to-rutabagas comparisons.

Sticking to road and transportation projects, this year's budget calls for $13.6 million to rebuild a stretch of Fermor Avenue over the next two years, $13.9 million to work on Empress Street over two years, and $33 million to rebuild the Pembina Highway overpass at Bishop Grandin Boulevard within six years.

When is the referendum?

On Oct. 24, the Portage and Main question will appear on the same ballots as candidates for mayor, councillor and school trustee. 

The result is non-binding.


  • We initially had a graphic in this story that said reopening the Portage and Main intersection to pedestrians would add 47 seconds to the bus route on Main Street from Graham Avenue. In fact, it would save bus commuters 47 seconds.
    Aug 21, 2018 11:56 AM CT


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.