There are a number of important concerns about opening up Portage & Main to pedestrian traffic. It will be an adjustment at first; after all, it’s been 40 years! Let’s look at some of the most common ones — click the title of the concern that matters most to you:
This is one of the main concerns the Dillon Report addresses. Since it was already being planned for, the report was not expected to address whether the intersection should be opened, only what the effect will be when it is. The unintended result is that the report has no bias on the question. Using sophisticated traffic models and multiple options for how to amend the traffic flow (for example, options included no right turns from Main Street onto Portage East, or adding a third left-turn lane from Portage onto Main Street northbound), the conclusion was that some traffic would be delayed by up to 30 seconds during the morning rush hour, and up to 54 seconds during the afternoon rush hour. (Note that none of the options have yet been adopted as a plan.)
Delays would be caused by traffic waiting for pedestrians to cross during portions of the light cycle where they share the same physical space. This means only traffic which is turning is affected; through traffic is not. As a result, Main Street North-South traffic is unaffected by opening the intersection to pedestrians. Other traffic is affected differently at other times of day, ranging from no impact up to a 54-second delay. Although this is an estimate, it is based on sophisticated software models being run with changing variables to account for multiple scenarios and represents the best information available.
Some models (outside the Dillon Report) suggest that traffic flow could actually be improved at Portage & Main, even with the addition of pedestrian traffic. Since the existing underground concourse will remain open, much of the foot traffic will remain below ground during the busiest parts of the day. All of these considerations will be taken into account during project planning phases as the intersection is opened (expected to be in stages) in order to make sure everything works smoothly.
There’s a lot to dissect in the numbers, the largest being $11.6 Million, representing the total cost estimated by the Dillon Report. Of this figure, $5.5 Million is capital costs for Winnipeg Transit. The remaining $6.1 Million is to address removal of barriers and repair of curb areas, the existing concourse, and access to it, including signal lights and the electrical, pipes, and concrete work involved. This figure includes a $2.3 million contingency for cost overruns. One example of cost increases would be tenting and heating if construction takes place during winter months. In 2017, Council approved $3.5 Million toward this part of the project.
The existing structures are in desperate need of repair, and during the course of addressing the decay, some remediation will need to be done for black mould and asbestos which have been identified so far. These repairs will need to be done regardless what happens with pedestrian traffic above ground — including any similar problems which have not yet been identified.
Because the matter is being put to a last-minute referendum, we don’t yet have an estimate for a repair-only option. In this instance, Council has failed the public by calling for a referendum after the campaign had already begun and before information was available for the public to evaluate the options. More information should be forthcoming after October 12th, but in the meantime we know that demolition and reconstruction will be required regardless, and that a significant portion of the funds have already been allocated. The final design may include additional enhancements beyond the opening of the intersection, and those extras would be evaluated based on their own merit and approved (or not) by City Council when the time comes.
The Dillon Report does not provide a breakdown, but the additional $5.5 million in capital costs for Winnipeg Transit is roughly equivalent to the cost of 11 transit buses. For comparison, Winnipeg Transit routinely purchases 32 new buses each year. The Report also recommends 12.5 additional full-time staff be added. Since Winnipeg Transit employs 1,560 people, this represents less than a 1% increase in their workforce. These recommendations will need to be considered separately by Winnipeg Transit.
All told, the costs are far less than a large number of projects currently underway, sometimes by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Although Portage & Main is a busy intersection, there is no reason to believe that it will be less safe than any other intersection in the city, including Main & McDermott, Main & Pioneer, or Portage & Fort -- each of which is one block away from Portage and Main. Reviewing the city's "most dangerous intersections" for collision counts, none are in the downtown area. Based on the City's 2016 Traffic Report, vehicle-pedestrian collisions at intersections are actually quite rare; the safest crossings for pedestrians are at intersections, where drivers expect them to be.
Portage & Main is currently the city's third busiest intersection. Traffic plans for the future include an internal ring road that is expected to move a significant portion of traffic away from the downtown core by providing an alternate route across the city. Since the concourse will remain open, many pedestrians will remain below ground during busy parts of the day. These two factors suggest that the Portage & Main of the future could be less busy than it is today.
It's important to remember that pedestrian safety was not a reason for the intersection’s closure in 1979. Portage & Main was closed to pedestrians contractually as a concession for Trizec Corporation to build three towers (only the first of which was actually built). Agreements were signed with each of the four property owners at the corners of Portage & Main as an incentive for them to invest in the concourse construction.
- Portage and Main Transportation Study (Dillon Consulting, City of Winnipeg)
- 2016 Annual Collision Report (City of Winnipeg)
- MPI data reveals Winnipeg's most dangerous intersections for pedestrians (CBC News)
Some don't believe that opening Portage & Main will do anything for downtown revitalization, but this is actually one of the biggest advantages to opening the intersection.
Every economic development organization for the region is agreed on this and supports the VoteOpen campaign based on the positive economic impact it will have. Former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray has detailed how this would be good for the downtown and of benefit to the entire city, and urban planners and designers across Canada and internationally have stated that the intersection needs to be redesigned to include pedestrians if it is to come up to modern standards and current best practices in urban design. Harvard Developments has specifically said that lack of pedestrian access is holding them back from developing a vacant lot they own on Main Street, immediately north of their existing property at 201 Portage.
Revitalization of the downtown area is a strong argument in favour of making this change now. Another is that all stakeholders are currently aligned in support of opening the intersection. If this doesn’t happen in 2019, each property owner at Portage & Main retains the option of renewing the agreement to keep it closed for another 40 years. Although their interests are all aligned at present, a change in ownership or direction for any of them could remove this future option from the city. We should act now to open the intersection and end those agreements so we don’t get caught in them again until 2059, or longer.
As early as 1991, City Council seems to have seen the error of closing the intersection for so long a period. Just 12 years into the 40-year term, they instructed the City’s legal department to approach the building owners at Portage & Main about opening the intersection back up — obviously, this didn't happen. The estimated cost to reopen the intersection at that time was $81,000, or about $130,000 in today’s dollars.
The Cost of Inaction
Some want to wait for more information before voting yes, but leaving the intersection closed now would be a lost opportunity. Economists and corporate accountants describe something known as “opportunity cost”, which is a kind of business calculation of what you could have gained, but didn’t. The best way to really explain this is to turn to a famous observation that Walter Gretzky made to his son Wayne: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Walter knew and explained that even though there may only be a 5-6% chance the puck will go in the net, there was a 100% chance that it wouldn’t if he didn’t take the shot. The lesson of course, is to take the shot. In the arena of economic development, Winnipeg needs to take more shots. We have no idea what it will cost not to take the shot.
- Cash needed to keep downtown Winnipeg growth from stalling: report (CBC News)
- Failure to open Portage and Main will hurt city: biz owners (Winnipeg Free Press)
- Put people first: architect tells city planning conference (Winnipeg Free Press)
- Reopening Portage and Main would be good for downtown and suburbs (Former Winnipeg Mayor Glenn Murray, special to Winnipeg Free Press)
- At the crossroads: Canadian urban planners on panel unanimous: Winnipeggers should seize opportunity to open Portage and Main, the city's 'Confusion Corner for pedestrians' (Winnipeg Free Press)
- Portage and Main “biggest impediment” to new development, says Harvard Developments
- Winnipeg City Council Minutes - July 10, 1991
The property owners on all four corners of Portage & Main support opening the intersection. This includes the landlords for all of the businesses in Winnipeg Square and other spaces connected to the underground concourse. Winnipeg Square itself will expect to see a large increase in foot traffic from the new mixed use tower being developed by Artis REIT at that site. There is currently a strong stream of daytime foot traffic from the Portage & Main area through Winnipeg Square to the skywalk at Graham Avenue, and there is no reason to anticipate that this will see a significant decrease when people are able to cross Portage & Main at grade level. Some of the businesses actually anticipate increased traffic from people being drawn to the area once they can cross easily above ground.
The businesses in Winnipeg Square at present largely cater to the business traffic they see from people working in the area, and as such they tend to close at or before the end of the workday. Although there are some convenience-oriented retail shops, there are a large number of restaurants and coffee shops serving the lunch rush. This is unlikely to change to a significant degree in the foreseeable future.
While it is true anecdotally that some businesses have expressed concern, their landlords have a very strong incentive to ensure that the rental value of these areas remains high. Steady foot traffic is a large part of the rental value for retail spaces like this, and having carefully considered this, the property owners strongly support opening the intersection despite having the rare ability to block it unilaterally if they so chose.
Part of this objection is based upon weather, and part upon the existing availability of the underground concourse. The fact is, a significant number of people are actively asking for the ability to cross, although many will certainly opt to continue using the concourse below ground. Having both remain as options means people have a choice to cross above or below ground according to the weather, personal preference, or the ease of reaching their destination.
Winnipeg's downtown residential population is growing, and at a much faster pace than the average for the rest of the city. Downtown residents and residential developers see the opening of Portage & Main as highly desirable for the downtown area.
Also see the additional links to media coverage and facts page. If you have more questions, please look for us at one of these events, or drop by our office in the former TD Bank space in the concourse at 201 Portage Avenue. We’re generally open from 11:00am to 3:00pm on weekdays, and welcome the opportunity to chat with you and answer questions. (Note this isn’t a debate forum, we’re simply around to answer questions in a low-key fashion and let the facts speak for themselves.) You can also grab a doughnut, pick up a t-shirt, lawn sign, or printed literature, and view a display of entries to a design competition reimagining Portage & Main.