Winnipeg council passes transit master plan, setting route for major changes for riders

City council voted 14-1 for a massive overhaul of Winnipeg’s transit system Thursday, but not without hand-wringing, finger-pointing, and some amending motions to smooth over vague financial estimates in the plan.

Years in the making, the blueprint will rework how and where riders catch a bus and how fast it will get them to their destination. Routes will change, with potentially more stops for some passengers, but also with buses coming more frequently. 

Three new rapid transit lines will be constructed, but not as grade-separated as the existing Blue Line between the downtown and the University of Manitoba.

The plan commits to purchasing more than 100 zero-emission buses, building a massive new garage and installing a new communications system in the fleet, as well as adding dozens of new heated bus shelters 

All told, it is estimated to cost somewhere between $800 million and $1.08 billion and take approximately 25 years to complete the whole plan.

Linked to the master plan is a request to the federal government’s Investing in Canada’s Infrastructure Program for $203 million in funding, which would cover some of the costs for the garage, zero-emission buses and other expenses.

That request would have to be forwarded to Ottawa through the provincial government.

The cost of some parts of the plan prompted a last-minute flurry of emails, according to some councillors.

“No, I’m not going to apologize for asking questions when we are dealing with items worth hundreds of millions of dollars,” said St. Vital Coun. Brian Mayes, who raised concerns about some of the estimates in the master plan.

Mayes voted for the plan after an amendment by St. James Coun. Scott Gillingham added a layer of scrutiny to the process as it unfolds into the future.

Coun. Brian Mayes voiced concerns about some of the cost estimates in the transit master plan. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The amendment did not go far enough for Coun. Kevin Klein (Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood), who was ultimately the lone no vote, saying there was simply not enough examination of the risk to taxpayers.

“I’m not saying it’s a bad plan, I’m saying we need fruitful discussion. We need access to quantitative data,” Klein told his colleagues. 

The plan got a hearty thumbs-up from the advocacy group Functional Transit Winnipeg. 

“It puts priority on service; the bus needs to show up at the stop first,” said the group’s president Derek Koop, who hailed the plan for improving access and reducing the city’s carbon footprint, but asked councillors to help residents understand the changes that would be coming to the system.

However, transit advocate Ken Klassen wasn’t as charitable with his observations about the plan, calling it “peanuts” and comparing it to the investments several other municipalities across the country were making into their systems.

Mayor Brian Bowman says the master plan commits the minimum amount of finances to get the maximum value. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Mayor Brian Bowman defended the scope of the plan, saying it was time for Winnipeg’s aging transit to evolve, but said it reflected how the city approached some investments.

“In typical Winnipeg fashion, this is using, relative to when you look at other cities, the least amount of finances to get the maximum value for Winnipeggers. That is something Winnipggers are known for and that is what this master plan delivers for Winnipeg Transit riders,” Bowman told reporters Thursday. 

A second amendment to the plan from Mynarski Coun. Ross Eadie commits the city to a plan to properly clear the snow from transit stops in the new route system to make it accessible for all riders.