Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? Transit Edition

Dear Winnipeg,

In what will come as a shock to absolutely no one who has been reading these letters, the City of Winnipeg’s financial position worsened by $32.2 million in 2021.

Is the pandemic is the cause of our ever-deepening insolvency? Nope, this pre-dates the pandemic. In fact, the past two pandemic years have actually been significantly better financial years than almost every other year we’ve had in at least a decade.

In fact, from a purely financial standpoint, the pandemic has actually been good for the City. I mean, if you like deep service cuts, deferral of maintenance, and huge bailouts from the feds, that is…

Most of you will correctly recognize the root cause as the car-centric development pattern we’ve adopted since WWII, what Strong Towns calls the Growth Ponzi Scheme, which has led us to building WAY more infrastructure than we can ever dream of affording. One of the ways out of this is to focus on a more people-centric way of building our neighbourhoods, which includes a shift towards walking, biking and transit.

So given all that, you would think that the most recent rapid transit project being proposed, the Eastern Corridor Study, would make me extremely happy.

But you’d be wrong. So what’s not to love?

Well, when we actually open up the study to examine the options being proposed, we find that the answer to that question is: almost everything.

But I’m just going to focus on the part of the study that is in my neighbourhood of Elmwood.

Proposed Elmwood section of Eastern Transit Corridor, from page 13

And that part is an absolute flaming hot pile of radioactive garbage. To put it nicely.

Okay, maybe I’m letting my emotions get the better of me here. Let me take a deep breath, and get back to what we’re all here for: facts and data.

FACT: the City has been quietly buying up property here for years. It already owns several properties along Nairn Ave that it has been buying as they have come up for sale on the open market.

Now, before we go any further, I think it’s important to understand that transit investment creates real value in the form of land appreciation. If you build a transit station, more people will want to be close to it, giving the land around the station more development potential, and thus, a higher value. A transit authority that owns that surrounding land before the station is built, then sells it after, will make a profit they can use to pay off their original investment in the station.

How to become a transit tycoon

That’s how transit investments have been made around the world for a very long time. Heck, in Japan, they even sell the air rights above the station for mixed-use development right on top of the station, literally making money out of thin air. [Like a boss.]

In North America, this was literally the business model of the rail barons during the Gilded Age, like Cornelius Vanderbilt. Even though he dropped out of school at the age of 11, he had amassed a fortune of $105 million by his death in 1877. As a proportion of GDP and adjusted for inflation, that would make him about 28% richer than Elon Musk is today.

That a man with a 5th grade education could use this business model to become one of the richest people to have ever existed in the history of this planet says a lot.

Look, to be absolutely fair, the rail barons also did a lot of shady stuff, like colluding in order to operate under illegal monopolies.

But then again, Winnipeg Transit also has a monopoly, enforced by the Province even. No collusion necessary.

The city has exclusive authority to operate local fixed-fare passenger transportation services within the city.

City of Winnipeg Charter Act, section 163(1)

Interesting, right?

So, back to that land acquisition by the City. Does this mean that the City has started acting like a rail, or rather, a transit baron?

Unfortunately, no. Sadly, it’s actually planning on doing the exact opposite.

If you look closely at the map provided, you can see that this plan requires the acquisition of almost every property on the south side of Nairn, plus a good portion of those on the north side. Not to resell at a higher value, thus increasing the tax base, no. But to entirely remove from the tax base and pave over with concrete (although some parts may get grass instead).

This is confirmed by the table on page 19 indicating “Property impacts”, a euphemism for expropriation. They are “significant”, I was told by a City employee familiar with the project. “Significant” being another euphemism, this time for “we’re going to bulldoze your neighbourhood”.

And because the City has no spare cash around, this project would be financed with debt.

Think about this for a moment. Rather than using the business acumen of a 5th grader to increase the City’s financial capacity so that we can, for once, increase services to residents, the City is going to borrow money so it can destroy millions of dollars of its own tax base.

Is it any wonder we’re insolvent? And that we keep getting poorer every year?

And here’s where my emotions get the better of me. It’s also pretty insulting. Elmwood has loads of community groups, residents and businesses that are working their tails off for the betterment of our community. They’re investing their time and their money to make this a better place to live, work and play. That has the measurable benefit to the City of increased property and business taxes without the burden of any additional infrastructure. And that’s on top of the fact that our neighbourhood is already more tax-productive than most newer neighbourhoods.

“This new location is in a revitalizing corner of the city, and I see only good things happening here.”

— Keith Clark, who recently moved his business to Elmwood

But rather than trying to see how the City could help to leverage our efforts for maximum mutual benefit, they’re going to borrow money to bulldoze over a “significant” part of it. Thanks Winnipeg Transit!

At this point, this all may be starting to feel to you like the freeway expansions of the mid-20th century that eviscerated inner-city neighbourhoods throughout North America… it certainly does to me. And there’s a reason it feels that way.

The two obviously have tons in common.

In that sense, it’s no surprise that the first phase of this study, which aimed to determine whether the route should go through St. Boniface, or Elmwood and Point Douglas, chose to go through the poorer neighbourhoods.

Look, it’s true that transit projects can have massive positive effects on a neighbourhood, if done right. Unfortunately, despite the study title, this isn’t actually a transit project. It’s a thinly-veiled road expansion project masquerading as a transit project.

Need proof?

Well, first off, it literally adds more car lanes. Despite the fact that we, in theory, should be at peak traffic today, if we are to meet the goals we have set for ourselves in the City’s Climate Action Plan. Also despite the fact that we already have more roads than we are ever going to be able to pay for.

Second, that relieving traffic congestion is even a goal of the project should tip you off that this is a road project. The things that are good for pedestrians, good for local businesses, good for neighbourhoods cause congestion. Relieving congestion means making things worse for pedestrians, for businesses, for neighbourhoods. They are literally opposites.

Third, the entire plan is so unbelievably car-centric that it’s obvious that absolutely no thought was put into the part of every transit trip that takes place outside of a bus. You know, like walking to and from the bus stop.

Oh sure, they’ve put in “pedestrian infrastructure”, but it’s just an afterthought glued onto a place designed to move cars quickly. A place focused on the convenience of pedestrians would make sure there was a lot of “stuff”, like businesses and housing, close to the transit station. A place focused on moving cars quickly would want the opposite. And here is the proposed design, with nothing and no one within a 5-minute walk of the station:

Transit that is conveniently located next to… nothing?

It’s almost as if they’ve gone out of their way to make sure people wanting to take transit have to go out of their way. Real humans don’t want to do this. So they won’t if they have the choice.

And let’s not forget the experience at the actual bus stop!

What would make this a better place to wait for a bus? More lanes of traffic!

Look, this may seem obvious, but it’s people who ride transit. If they were actually designing for people to use this space, the design choices would be much different. But obviously, every single design choice has been measured against its impact on cars. Because this is a road expansion project.

It even uses the biased language of road expansion projects, naming the most destructive scenario the “Ultimate”, subconsciously trying to nudge us towards it as though it were the one to aspire to.

And don’t forget the greenwashing that is so common in road expansion projects. Because it supposedly relieves congestion, the “Ultimate” scenario earns three green “eco-leaves” as its Climate Action alignment rating. Only a car project would claim that doubling a road’s capacity for cars is good for the climate…

I’m not against cars. Cars are actually pretty great. But there are places for cars, and there are places for people. Not only for health and climate and safety and comfort reasons, but as we’ve seen, for actual, hard financial reasons.

Plus, I can’t stress this enough: don’t sell me a car and tell me it’s a bus.

Look, it may sound like I’m pretty worked up over this, and I kinda am. But if there’s one thing that’s preventing me from losing any sleep over it, it’s this: there’s no money for this, and there never will be.

That’s right. This “plan” is pure fantasy. It isn’t “made from what’s real“. Not even close.

Ten years ago, replacing the Disraeli Bridge cost nearly $200 million dollars. I would not be surprised to learn that this project, with its 6-lane bridge, massive land expropriations, road widenings and more, after a few more years of runaway inflation is going to be in the ballpark of a half a billion dollars. Even shared three ways with the Province and the feds, the City’s share would more than max out its debt ceiling. On this one project.

Let me tell you, even if the City was going to max out its debt on a single project, this ain’t it.

Which begs another question: why is this study presenting us with options that we will never be able to afford?

That’d be like me hiring a consultant to help me decide which model of Lamborghini to buy.

In my wildest dreams, I will never be able to afford a Lambo, so hiring that consultant would be a waste of money. Any 5th grader could tell you that.

And yet we just spent $2.9 million dollars on a recommendation for three different models of Eastern Transit Corridor we will never be able to afford.

At best, we may be able to afford the “rehab only” option. But even that’s a stretch. By my calculations, the only thing we can afford is the “let the Louise Bridge fall into the river out of disrepair” option. [That one’s not listed in the study, for some reason.]

That’s why I’m especially sad about the wasted $2.9 million. It could have gone a long way to trying different options out on the existing street. To making things better right now.

And I know the pearl-clutchers will be worried, but what about congestion?! Look, if you’re still not convinced that doing things that may cause congestion is good, I might point out that humans are really bad at predicting the future. And as such, there might not even be congestion. Case in point: the stretch of Nairn Ave in the study is currently closed for some construction work. As such, it only has a single lane of eastbound traffic, and westbound lanes are closed entirely. It’s been like this for weeks, and it will continue to be for months. And the world hasn’t ended.

Even though there are so many more things I could say in opposition to this ill-conceived project, I’m going to end it on this little anecdote.

As you probably know, a few weeks ago, Strong Towns’ Chuck Marohn came to Winnipeg to speak to a sold-out crowd about transportation issues. What you may not know is that the day before, Chuck was on an invitation-only 3-hour bus tour throughout the city to answer questions about specific aspects of Winnipeg’s transportation system. During this tour, Chuck made everyone get off the bus at Fort Rouge Station, on our current BRT’s one-and-only route, the Blue Line. Here it is below. [Remind you of any proposed designs you’ve seen lately?]

Transit that is conveniently located next to… nothing?

He asked the several dozen people there, “How many of you, if you had a magic wand, and you could just take this, and replicate it 10, 20 or 30 times throughout the city, would want to?”

Not a single person raised their hand.

This was a bus full of city engineers, planners, former and current elected officials, community members, and not a single one was happy with the results of our approach to rapid transit.

Yet, the Eastern Transit Corridor takes the exact same approach. An approach that will bankrupt us if we continue. There is a better way.

So please, fill out the survey, and attend the open house on June 27th, to tell the City what Chuck has shown them they already know.

Love,

Elmwood Guy