Muddying up Winnipeg's roadmap

The cancellation of the Marion Street widening only serves to further muddy the waters when it comes to transportation planning and infrastructure funding in Winnipeg.

Imminent death of the Marion Street widening illustrates transportation-priority uncertainty

Thee Marion Street widening, depicted in this illustration, is quite literally going back to the drawing board. (City of Winnipeg)

Over the past two months, the oversized and unpopular project known as the Marion Street widening has been sitting on the infrastructure-funding version of death row.

St. Boniface residents couldn't stand the project, which called for an underpass or overpass at the railway crossing just east of Archibald Street, complete with enough offramps and onramps to create a concrete forest on the far side of the Seine River.

City councillors became equally unenthused when they learned the projected pricetag had ballooned to $566 million, a figure that would have required the city to spend $20 million a year, if the widening went ahead.

Tomorrow at city hall, council is poised to kill the project and order the consulting firm MMM Group to come up with a less expensive and less disruptive alternative.

That's what people in St. Boniface want. But the cancellation will only serve to further muddy the waters when it comes to transportation planning and infrastructure funding in Winnipeg.

If any city councillors plan to stomp their feet tomorrow and decry the lousy manner in which the Marion Street widening was conceived, they better take a mirror to the council meeting.

That's because it's only been 20 months since this very same city council — yes, the one led by Brian Bowman — declared the Marion widen​ing Winnipeg's No. 2 infrastructure priority.

In March 2015, council reordered Winnipeg infrastructure-funding priorities, placing the Waverley underpass first and the Marion widening second. 

Officially, this was all about promoting safety, as the disaster at Lac-Megantic, Que. remained a fresh wound in the nation's psyche. But the ranking also served the city well in its efforts to secure federal funding for major infrastructure projects.

The Waverley underpass was a big priority in the federal ridings of Winnipeg South, where Conservative MP Rod Bruinooge was about to retire, and Winnipeg South Centre, where unpopular Tory Joyce Bateman was about to face a challenge from Liberal Jim Carr.

The Marion widening sat in Saint Boniface-Saint Vital, which became a wide-open race after far more formidable Tory MP Shelly Glover announced her own plan to retire.

An artist's rendering of what the proposed Waverley underpass will look like when it's finished. (City of Winnipeg)
So when council declared Waverley and Marion the top two Winnipeg priorities, it also increased the likelihood the former Harper government would fund those projects. It doesn't really matter now that all three of those ridings went Liberal.

But it does matter that the Waverley project is going ahead, while the Marion widening remains in limbo?

Why? Back in 2011, four years before city council made a political decision about infrastructure priorities, city transportation planners came up with a priority list of their own.

That list, which appears in the 2011 Transportation Master Plan, declares the Marion widening and railway overpass an immediate priority for Winnipeg. That means planners wanted it to be finished by 2016.

The Waverley underpass was only an intermediate priority. The planners determined it ought to be completed between 2016 and 2021.

Nonetheless, city council voted to allow the Waverley underpass to jump the funding queue, leaping over the only short-term infrastructure priority the city has failed to start besides the Marion widening.

Louise Bridge replacement in limbo

That would be the replacement of the Louise Bridge, which the city continually puts off, even though the steel span across the Red River was built in 1910 and is very close to the end of its usable life.

The future of the Louise Bridge is in limbo while the city studies where exactly the East Transitway should cross the Red River. There's a chance a new, extra-wide Louise Bridge could carry buses as well as cars and trucks.

Regardless, transportation planners concerned about the prospect of inner-city gridlock are itching to see the city commit to replacing the Louise Bridge before it greenlights other projects on the intermediate-priority list.

That list includes suburban projects such as the western extension of Chief Peguis Trail to McPhillips Street, the southern extension of the William R. Clement Parkway to Wilkes Avenue and something completely new called the Edward Schreyer Parkway, which is supposed to connect Plessis Road to Chief Peguis Trail.

The problem is, nobody has bothered to update either of the city's infrastructure-priority lists. The Transportation Master Plan is five years old, while council's political priorities are unknown, at least to the public.

This presents a problem when Bowman tries to convince his federal and provincial colleagues to fork over money for municipal infrastructure. As well, the Trudeau government is more interested in transit than it is in roads.

On Nov. 22, the city should provide some clarity in the form of the 2017 budget, which includes a six-year capital-funding forecast. For starters, it should indicate whether Winnipeg expects Ottawa to pay for part of the city's $53-million transit-garage expansion.

It may also indicate whether the city expects Ottawa to keep cash on the table for some form of Marion widening. While the half-billion-dollar version of that project will die tomorrow, transportation planners will keep pushing for a successor version.

The budget may also offer zero clarity about the city's intentions. Given the way transportation planning has been conducted in the past in this city, this would not be a radical development.


Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter 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. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.