Time for Winnipeg to Get Serious About Rapid Transit

Commentary, Transportation, Steve Lafleur

Rapid transit is a long standing topic of debate in Winnipeg. In the last municipal election, Mayor Sam Katz pledged his support for light rail transit (LRT), while runner up Judy Wasylycia-Leis supported bus rapid transit (BRT). Three years later, we have 3.6km of something approaching bus rapid transit. But while critics point to building BRT over LRT as an example of the cheap-skate mentality that they fear is holding Winnipeg back, the city is entirely correct to choose buses over trains; they just need to build a much more extensive network. Even Katz now seems to recognize that building a city-wide LRT network would be unaffordable. While expanded rapid transit won’t be a panacea for all that ails Winnipeg, it will decrease commute times for transit users while spurring investment in the city. It’s time for us all to rally behind a first class bus rapid transit system.

The first phase of Winnipeg’s Southwest Transitway bus system cost $138 million for 3.6km  (just under $39 million per kilometer). A proposed 7km extension will cost an estimated $350 million. At $50 million per kilometer, the cost may seem high, but that is partly due to the fact that it includes several overpasses to increase speed without conflicting with car traffic. As an example, think of Osborne Station, which was built on top of Osborne St., and allows buses to bypass “Confusion Corner.”

While BRT can seem expensive, it is a much better value than LRT. A recent analysis of 21 North American rapid transit corridors by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy found that:

“the cost per mile of BRT infrastructure was less than one-half that of similar-quality LRT or streetcar systems. At the same time, BRT provided a similar, or sometimes higher, quality of service. In most cases, the cost advantages of BRT were considerably greater.”

Critics of BRT, when confronted with such data, often retreat to the argument that rail catalyzes more adjacent private development. The previously mentioned study also analyzed the impact of those 21 transit corridors on development. The two greatest returns on investment came from BRT systems in Cleveland ($114.54 per dollar spent) and Kansas ($101.96). These were followed by Seattle’s streetcar ($53.57), Las Vegas’ BRT ($42.28), and Portland’s streetcar ($41.48).

Portland’s vaunted MAX LRT line came in at a paltry $3.74 per dollar invested. The argument that buses cannot attract investment is pure nonsense. Service levels are what matter, not whether the vehicles move on rails or asphalt.

Despite the fact that the city has settled on BRT for the extension, the city is running out of time to finance the project. It has until December 1st to complete a deal to fund the second phase of the project, if they are to receive federal funding. The sticking point is that the city wants to access funding through the Federal P3 Fund, which helps evaluate and finance public-private partnerships. That would cap the federal contribution at 25% of project funding, but the province wants the three levels of government to each pay 1/3 of the cost.

Problems with having three levels of government involved with a single project notwithstanding, the P3 Fund would be the preferable approach. As we’ve seen with Chief Peguis Trail and the Disraeli Bridges project, P3s can achieve cost savings by putting the financial burden of cost overruns and schedule delays on private contractors. It makes more sense to have the province finance a greater portion of a contractually guaranteed sum than have the city on the hook for potential cost overruns.

If Winnipeg wants to take its transit system to the next level, the city and province should ensure that they strike a deal before December 1st. If they want to do it in a fiscally responsible manner, they should use the P3 Fund. Bus rapid transit can have the same impact on the city as light rail transit at less than half of the price. It’s time to double down on bus rapid transit.