Do you wanna go faster? Yeah, you do. The question is whether Winnipeg Transit can make it happen
If a new transit plan for Southwest Winnipeg doesn't work, the city may sour forever on bus corridors
It's taken 44 years for Winnipeg to complete its first rapid-transit corridor. How well it works when it opens next spring may determine whether the city ever attempts to build another one.
The city was first advised to build a dedicated bus corridor connecting downtown to the University of Manitoba's Fort Garry campus in 1976, when transportation engineers determined a diesel busway would be more flexible and cost-effective than three other options: a monorail, a light-rail track or an electric trolley-bus corridor.
Decades of dithering ensued before then-Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz and then-Manitoba premier Gary Doer agreed to build the first phase of the Southwest Transitway, a 3.6-kilometre stub of a bus corridor completed in 2012 at a cost of $138 million.
During roughly the same time frame, the City of Ottawa put together a network of bus corridors that proved so popular, downtown bus congestion became a problem during the rush hour in Canada's capital. Ottawa is now in the process of upgrading bus corridors into light-rail tracks; the recently opened Confederation Line includes a section that runs underground.
Winnipeg's sole abbreviated busway is nowhere near that sexy. While the first phase of the Southwest Transitway allowed buses to bypass rush-hour traffic at Confusion Corner, it failed to have a transformative effect on transit ridership in the city.
It didn't make the average ride between downtown and the U of M much faster. It didn't appear to have an effect on ridership. And it has yet to stimulate the complete redevelopment of what used to be the Fort Rouge Yards, although some townhouses, apartments and condos have risen alongside the Fort Rouge and Jubilee transit stations.
In essence, Winnipeg Transit has largely operated the same way it did before the transitway's first leg opened, albeit with more complaints from passengers about getting stranded at stops when jam-packed buses pass by them along routes that are not served by high-capacity articulated vehicles.
Transit is promising much bigger things when the entire 11.2 kilometres of the Southwest Transitway opens in April 2020. In a report published Tuesday, Winnipeg Transit engineers are promising to reduce the frequency of pass-ups for a significant swath of the city by making radical changes to the way it operates in southwest Winnipeg.
The plan is to end the practice of point-to-point service between downtown and most southwest Winnipeg destinations on a single bus. Instead, buses will run more frequently along the Southwest Transitway, which will be connected to lower-frequency feeder routes that stop at transitway stations.
This "spine-and-feeder" model seems counterintuitive. The city is essentially promising shorter travel times by getting passengers to take two buses instead of one.
The main way this trick would be accomplished is by reducing the occurrence of a common scenario: The infuriating experience of getting passed up by an over-capacity bus downtown and being forced to wait 20 minutes for a second one.
Instead, southwest-bound commuters would get on any transitway-bound bus and head to a transit station to transfer onto a feeder route — or get in their cars at a park-and-ride location.
"The feeder routes themselves shouldn't be subject to much delay at all because they're not operating through all the congested conditions downtown," said Bjorn Radstrom, Winnipeg Transit's service delivery manager. "You've got shorter, more reliable feeder routes, and then the frequent service on the long route."
This is how it's supposed to work, with the help of additional transit buses, additional drivers and more money than Mayor Brian Bowman recently suggested he would be willing to allocate to Winnipeg Transit next year. Reconciling this financial conundrum is a task that will be dealt with during the upcoming budget process, Radstrom said.
Assuming the money materializes, Winnipeg Transit faces pressure to ensure its plan to fully utilize the Southwest Transitway actually works.
"I think it has to work absolutely wonderfully, because if it doesn't, why would we build any more?" asked Coun. Janice Lukes, whose Waverley West ward includes many neighbourhoods that would be served by the new feeder routes.
"We're going to try the plan, and I'm sure we're going to have to modify it and tweak it at some point, I'm sure, because that's what happened with phase one."
The new transit plan for southwest Winnipeg may also be a preview of sorts. Winnipeg Transit is also in the midst of overhauling the way it operates in every corner of the city, in conjunction with the development of a new transportation master plan.
Bowman insisted this is not a case of putting the Southwest Transitway cart before a city-wide planning horse.
"We need to get moving on this component to make sure it's operational in the spring while the work continues on the broader plan," the mayor said Tuesday.
Nonetheless, it does appear Winnipeg Transit will expand the spine-and-feeder model, based on public consultations that began last week.
How that happens effectively without future bus corridors is uncertain. Right now, there is no money set aside to do anything but study the idea of building the five other bus corridors Bowman promised to build in Winnipeg by 2030.
"I don't know how realistic doing six of them is. Let's see how this one works," Lukes quipped, referring to the Southwest Transitway.
"Governments have changed since I was first elected, with different priorities for transportation," said Bowman, providing himself with wiggle room to back out of his 2014 campaign promise.
Brian Pallister's Progressive Conservative government has neither ruled out funding a second bus corridor nor agreed to spend money on a busway, a project that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
On Tuesday, Municipal Relations Minister Rochelle Squires said in a statement the province looks forward to learning more about the city's transportation plans, once they're complete.
For years, city transportation planners operated under the assumption the East Transitway — which would connect Transcona to downtown and by extension, the Southwest Transitway — would be the second bus corridor in Winnipeg. An alignment and feasibility study was underway before it was incorporated into a broader rapid-transit master plan and prioritization study.
That plan is due to be finished within months. It's expected to determine whether the East Transitway still figures into the city's transportation plans — and if so, where the Transcona-bound bus corridor would cross the Red River, how this crossing would affect the replacement of the Louise Bridge and whether it is indeed possible to remove buses from Main Street by running them above ground on unused elevated rail tracks west of The Forks.
Again, there's no money set aside to build any of these amenities, along with replacing Arlington Bridge, widening Kenaston Boulevard, extending Chief Peguis Trail to the west or building any other megaproject.
What is certain is the public appetite for a second bus corridor won't exist if Winnipeg Transit's ambitious plans fall flat this coming spring.