City & Politics, Planning

Sam Katz, you were right. Rapid Transit is a bad idea

By: Joseph Kornelsen

When Sam Katz became mayor in 2004 he decided to cut the Rapid Transit project because he thought it was a waste of money.  I was pretty angry because I believed that Rapid Transit would make transit better.  But, helped along by the $600 million price tag for phase two, I began to realize the horrible truth: I had been wrong and, worse, Sam Katz had been right.

If it’s between Rapid Transit and Scott Fielding’s plan to build more roads, we should just burn the money instead. Both of these plans are terrible. But there is a better way to spend $600 million on transit.

Rapid Transit is a reckless plan that is based on a number of complicated processes having to take place after it is complete.  For the Southwest Corridor to be more useful than the current route, houses have to be built along the corridor, the right people need to buy those houses, downtown has to become a desirable place to go and the necessary amenities have to appear along the Rapid Transit corridor. (Will the grocery stores appear in time for people buying the high density condos to not buy a car?)

The cost is what’s most startling.  When the price for Phase Two of the Southwest Corridor was $275 million, I passively accepted the project even though it was already four times higher than the $70 million the whole corridor was projected to cost in 1997.  But now Phase Two is predicted to cost $600 million[1] – that’s a lot money for five kilometres of roadway.  Here’s some context:

  • The province just expanded the flow-rate of the 47 kilometre floodway by 50 per cent (which included the rebuilding of eight bridges) for $627 million.
  • For $600 million we could buy 1,500 new buses or pay the salaries of 1,200 new bus drivers for 10 years.
  • For the cost of both phases–$738 million– we could buy every Transit rider a new car.

Why are we building the Southwest Corridor?

To make Transit better for riders who already use it?
To increase transportation options for Winnipeggers?
To encourage people to lead transit-oriented lives?
To encourage denser development?

Phase Two of the Southwest Corridor will do none of these things.  Here’s why:

Rapid Transit is ruining an effective route:

One of the best transit routes in Winnipeg is Pembina Highway from University Crescent to Jubilee.  What makes it good is that bus traffic is frequent at almost all times on weekdays.  There is almost no need to look at a schedule.  The whole route is well-connected to existing commercial infrastructure and residential neighbourhoods.  By moving ahead with Phase Two, the city is actually removing effective transit service from those already living in the high-density housing on Pembina from McGillivray to Bishop Grandin and putting it in an area that is supposed to someday have that kind of development.

Rapid Transit does not increase transportation options:

Rapid Transit will only increase transportation options if it can compete with a personal vehicle.  It doesn’t.  A car is readily available when needed and a car gets a driver nearly to the front door of a friend’s house, a grocery store or a workplace.  Rapid Transit stops are far from people’s houses, there are few stops and for the foreseeable future the only useful places Rapid Transit goes is to the University of Manitoba and to downtown.

Rapid Transit does not encourage people to lead public transit-oriented lives:

Most trips that people make are not between Fort Garry and downtown.  In a study conducted in 2007, researchers found that during the morning rush hour using all modes of transportation, only seven per cent of trips made by Fort Garry residents were to downtown and only two per cent made by downtown residents were to Fort Garry.  Most trips people made were within their neighbourhood.  That was true of most neighbourhoods in Winnipeg, actually.  The Rapid Transit logic assumes people need to get to downtown fast, but that’s not where they’re going.  We don’t need fast buses making few stops and going long distances.  We need more buses making more stops closer to people’s homes and closer to retailers[2].  If Transit doesn’t efficiently get a person to a friend’s house or to the grocery store then they will buy a car (if they can afford it).  And once a person gets a car, they’re probably not going to take Transit.

The cost of a car is high, but once a person has one, operating it is cheaper than taking a bus.  In Winnipeg, car insurance is cheap, gas is cheap, parking is cheap and the commute time to anywhere in the city is short.  For the price of two monthly Transit passes, my girlfriend and I can insure our car, cover our maintenance bill and buy a tank of gas. Before we’ve even gotten to the time-cost of taking a bus anywhere, we can use our car for a week out of every month.  If I valued my time at minimum wage, almost all trips using my gas-guzzling ’86 station wagon are cheaper than taking a bus.

Rapid Transit is encouraging sprawl:

Despite the argument that this project will create higher density, in reality it is making a fast link between the suburbs and downtown with few stops in between. Our current transit system is geared toward the work commute and Rapid Transit will be just one more commuting line.  Reducing the commute time from the suburbs to downtown actually encourages sprawl.

To encourage density, transit needs to actually serve all of the transportation needs of individuals and lower the price of fares to compete with private vehicles.  The amazing thing is that we can actually do that for much cheaper than $600 million.


This is a very exciting time for public transit in Winnipeg.  Only three years ago Sam Katz and the province were squabbling over who should pay how much when Phase Two was only projected to cost $275 million.  In 2011 Sam Katz actually said: “If the premier is genuinely prepared to come to the table with $92 million, in 2011 dollars, I’m prepared to go for it.”  Now the city and the province are both spending $225 million.  That’s an amazing leap in financial support for encouraging transit in Winnipeg.  This is a huge boon for transit advocates and we need to jump on this clear support expressed by the city and the province.  The federal money is definitely tied to infrastructure so we won’t get it if we don’t use it on the Southwest Corridor, but that’s ok, we don’t need that money to make an awesome transit system.

With simple investments in more buses and reduced fares we could make taking the bus throughout the whole city significantly more convenient and more affordable.  And we can pay for a lot of buses and a lot of salaries with $450 million.

Public transit is a catch-22.  More riders will choose transit only if transit becomes more convenient, but transit will only become more convenient if more riders choose it.  With $450 million, we can overcome this problem by investing in convenience on routes throughout the city.

Most bus routes in Winnipeg actually take riders to the things they need. The problem is that buses just don’t come often enough.  When buses don’t come often, transferring buses becomes extremely inconvenient and shopping trips have to be planned carefully (if there’s a long line at the cashier it could cost a rider the critical minutes they need to get to a bus that only comes twice an hour).  These are exactly the kinds of costs that must be eliminated in order to encourage people to take transit.

For $100 million, we can buy 100 new buses, pay for the fuel and pay the driver salaries for eight years.  For $200 million, we can put four new buses on the busiest 50 routes in Winnipeg for eight years– that’s without accounting for any fares collected on those buses[3].  The route I rely on most, the #14 route from Ellice to south St. Vital, would have four extra buses on a Saturday and instead of coming every 15 minutes, it would come every 10.  For a third of the price of the Southwest Corridor, half the bus routes in Winnipeg would be made significantly more frequent for eight years.  That’s with less than half of the $450 million.

We could also reduce fares.  If we used the full $450 million we could make transit free for all current riders for five years.  Obviously that’s not sustainable.  But we could do so many other things.  With $200 million we could make fares $1 for six years.  Or we could use that money to cover the financial costs of all sorts of promotional rates.  What if we had free transit weekends in the summer?  Or a half price bus passes in the winter?

The obvious retort to these ideas is that they are not infrastructure spending because they are not long-term.  But it’s not true– this is a long-term investment.  With $200 to $400 million, we can run a significantly enhanced transit program for a period of time long enough to encourage people to consider public transit[4].

With the $450 million, we could create significantly more capacity and offer all kinds of financial incentives to use that extra capacity for at least eight years.  And unlike Rapid Transit, these are significant improvements that go to every neighbourhood in the city.

Even better, there is flexibility with this strategy.  If ridership goes up more in some neighbourhoods than others, we can simply move buses to those routes that have the demand.

Finally, by investing this way, it maximizes short-term benefits.  The long-term gains such as reduced road infrastructure decay are just an incidental consequence of people choosing to use an awesome transit system now.

By investing in Rapid Transit we are doing things in the wrong order.  Transit advocates are arguing for a project that will help very few people in the short-term and most of the gains will come in an imagined future of higher density.  Trying to convince the public to support a project meant to solve an abstract problem for future generations is not a winning strategy– ask any environmentalist how well that works.  That’s why it’s always a huge battle whenever the subject of Rapid Transit comes up for public discussion.  Dedicated corridors should come last.  Increasing ridership should come first.  Once ridership is up, then maybe we can talk about building dedicated roadways.

Rapid Transit is not a good idea right now but that doesn’t mean we should stop talking about it.  It’s not a bad thing that we have been considering it for 40 years.  It should always be an option.  But if we’re having big public fights every time it comes up, we’re probably not ready for it.  The City and the Province are right to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in transit, but the investment should go toward making a transit-oriented lifestyle possible, something the system does poorly today and something the Southwest Corridor will not do.

Joseph Kornelsen lives in the West End, and used to take the bus routes down Pembina Highway daily.

[1] The price for the actual corridor is supposed to be $425 million with another $185 million directed toward other improvements that are linked to Rapid Transit.  Some people point out this distinction, however since the city is choosing to commit to all this spending in the name of Rapid Transit (and it’s probably the number critics will use to justify not giving more money for transit initiatives in the future), I’m going with that number.

[2] If you live in Waverley Heights (my old neighbourhood) imagine how much more convenient it would be to have a route that went down Markham and Chancellor and then went through the strip mall parking lot between Chancellor to Markham.

[3] According to Winnipeg Transit a new bus costs $400,000 and the top-end salary for a bus driver is $24.87 or about $50,000 annually.  The total annual fuel expenditure is $8 million – I divided total fuel cost by half the total fleet to try to account for the fact that the whole fleet isn’t running at same time ($8 million/300 buses) to come up with an estimate for total fuel consumption.  There was no information on the cost of bus maintenance so I had to leave it out.  If the cost of maintenance over the lifetime of the bus was equal to the cost of the bus then over nine years total maintenance bill for 200 buses would be $37 million.

[4] If we take into consideration that there will be at least three more Rapid Transit corridors, if they all cost the same as the Southwest Corridor, then we could offer the reduced fares/increased frequency scheme instead for at least thirty years.