Portage and Main plebiscite: 8 things to know before you vote

Portage and Main has been closed to pedestrians for 40 years. It may seem like the debate over reopening the intersection has lasted longer. The latest chapter in the saga ends on Wednesday, when Winnipeg votes on the issue in a ballot plebiscite.

The saga that defined an election cycle ends on election day. Here's how we got here.

The barricades at Portage and Main have been in place since 1979. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Portage and Main has been closed to pedestrians for 40 years. It may seem like the debate over reopening the intersection has lasted longer.

The latest chapter in the saga ends on Wednesday, when Winnipeg votes on the issue in a ballot plebiscite.

Here's how the city got to this point and what's at stake:

1. Traffic played no role in the original decision to close Portage and Main

Portage and Main was closed to pedestrians in 1979 as part of a city deal to subsidize the construction of an underground mall — Winnipeg Square — and the office tower now known as 360 Main.

An entire city block was razed to make way for the project, which was connected to the rest of downtown's nascent weather-protected walkway system by a circular passageway, officially known as the Portage and Main circus.

The deal reached in 1976 called for barricades to be placed above ground to funnel pedestrians below grade into Winnipeg Square. At the time, this was seen as a small price to pay for downtown revitalization.

Over some protests, the deal went ahead and Portage and Main was shuttered in 1979. But there was a provision to reopen the intersection in another 40 years.

2. Brian Bowman promised to reopen the intersection

After the barricades went up, every Winnipeg mayor except for Sam Katz mused about reopening Portage and Main.

Glen Murray, who served as mayor from 1998 to 2004, came the closest. His administration commissioned a design contest as well as a report that recommended reopening Portage and Main during evenings and on weekends.

By the time that report was finished, Murray had resigned his seat as mayor. In 2006, Katz's executive policy committee voted to shelve the report, with the new mayor declaring the city would not undermine its deal with Portage Avenue property owners.

It would take another eight years for the issue to re-emerge.

During the 2014 mayoral race, Bowman promised to reopen the intersection by 2019. That goal proved to be more complicated after he was elected.

It took city hall 3½ years to convince all the Portage and Main property owners to get on board. But that was actually the simple part.

Preliminary engineering studies revealed it would take more than a sledgehammer to remove the barricades. The entire intersection had fallen into disrepair, both above ground and below. The studies also revealed even more work was required to figure out the implications on traffic and transit.

In 2016, Winnipeg public works director Lester Deane told reporters it would take two more years to simply study those implications, never mind conduct the actual work. 

Bowman responded by contradicting his public works director, whose relationship with the mayor worsened until Deane's departure from the city in 2017.

Deane's two-year-old statements proved entirely accurate, as city council did not approve a plan to start opening the intersection until October 2017. By that time, it became entirely clear the work would not be concluded during Bowman's first term.

3. The city set aside $3.5M for repairs and reopening plans

One year ago, city council voted to spend $2 million repairing Portage and Main both above and below the ground and spend up to $1.5 million on a plan to reopen the intersection, starting with Portage Avenue E. in September 2019.

The latter plan is now on hold. During the spring of 2018, mayoral challenger Jenny Motkaluk started using Portage and Main as a wedge to separate Bowman from his 2014 support base, the theory being Bowman is more popular than reopening Portage and Main.

Some of Bowman's council allies, including councillors Scott Gillingham, John Orlikow and Brian Mayes, indicated they too were not on board. Bowman wound up with an election-year policy headache.

So when councillors Jeff Browaty and Janice Lukes proposed a plebiscite on reopening the intersection, Bowman took the out he needed.

Bowman voted in favour of a non-binding plebiscite, backing away from his 2014 campaign promise on the basis the issue was so divisive, voters ought to have a say.

"This was a populist play for votes to begin with, which is really unfortunate," said Adam Dooley, a spokesperson for the Coalition for Portage and Main.

4. The Portage and Main decision is not binding

On Wednesday, voters will be asked whether they support reopening Portage and Main to pedestrians. The question is a plebiscite, meaning there is nothing that compels city council to honour the result.

That said, Bowman and Motkaluk have both promised to respect the outcome of the vote. That means the intersection would remain closed for no less than four more years, should voters reject the idea. 

A "no" vote on Wednesday will effectively cancel the city's plan to spend $1.5 million on reopening the intersection, in stages.

But the city will continue to proceed with repairs, both above and below the ground. And that may result in the removal of some barricades, which could be replaced with railings, Winnipeg planning, property and development director John Kiernan said earlier this year.

5. The only credible Portage and Main poll is 2 months old

A Probe Research poll conducted in August at the behest of CBC News suggested two-thirds of Winnipeggers are against the idea of reopening the intersection.

The same poll of 600 adults, which had an error margin of four per cent, suggested there was little room for movement, as 66 per cent of Winnipeggers said they were not going to change their minds.

Nonetheless, the campaign in favour of a "yes" vote is hopeful there has been some movement since, thanks to attention placed on the issue.

"I think we have some momentum. Whether it's enough to get us over the top, we'll see on Wednesday," Dooley said in an interview.

"I think the best thing coming out of this is we made people a whole lot more aware of some of the issues around the intersection — accessibility and safety being two of the most important."

6. The 'yes' side uses qualitative arguments

The central argument in favour of opening Portage and Main could be described as urbanism 101. The theory is neighbourhoods of all sorts thrive when pedestrian needs are placed above those of motor vehicles.

This theory has a practical application when you consider more development is coming to downtown and there will be a need to create better connections on a human scale between the east and west sides of the Exchange District, the South Portage commercial district and the southeast quadrant of downtown, which includes The Forks.

Downtown development agency CentreVenture has a medium-term plan to build up Main Street south of Portage Avenue. More tangibly, The Forks is completing a plan to develop the Railside land east of Main Street, followed by the empty lot known as Parcel Four.

There's no evidence these plans have any traction with the general public, even as Portage and Main property owners say they're more likely to improve their properties and generate more tax revenue for the city if the intersection is reopened.

The yes side says they've found more traction with arguments about downtown safety and the time it takes for people in wheelchairs to cross the intersection.

Reopening the intersection could save people in wheelchairs five minutes of travel time, Dillon Consulting concluded in a city-commissioned traffic study.

The accessibility argument has even convinced opponents of reopening Portage and Main that something must be done to improve the underground circus.

"It's 40 years old. It doesn't meet modern accessibility requirements. That needs to be addressed," Browaty said in an interview on Monday.

7. The 'no' side uses quantitative arguments

Reopening Portage and Main to pedestrians will cause delays for motorists and Winnipeg Transit, especially during the afternoon rush hour.

According to the Dillon study, north-south traffic on Main Street would be unaffected, as it would sync up with pedestrians heading north and south.

East-west crossings and turns, however, would be slower. People travelling through the intersection by car or bus could see their total trips take an additional 12 seconds to five minutes during the height of the afternoon rush hour.

The worst delays involve the least common trip: heading west on Portage Avenue E. from the Fairmont Hotel and turning right on to Main Street in order to drive north.

The Dillon study also predicts more vehicle-pedestrian collisions, although right turns from Main Street onto Portage Avenue E. would be banned.

The no side is also concerned about costs, as Dillon projects it would cost $11.6 million to reopen the intersection, including the cost of purchasing more buses to offset rush-hour transit delays.

8. The debate has been divisive

Both proponents and opponents of reopening Portage and Main say the passion on both sides of the debate has created some hard feelings.

The yes side has been portrayed as elitist, while their opponents have been painted as philistines.

"I don't think throwing things to plebiscites is a good way to set public policy and I think that's one thing we've learned in spades," Dooley said.

"If you believe some of what's been said, you'd think everybody who is voting no is against progress downtown. You'd think they're against better accessibility downtown, and that can't be further from the truth," Browaty said.

The end of the debate is near. Polls close on Wednesday at 8 p.m.


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.


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