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New Winnipeg transit corridor opens despite drop in ridership, closure of University of Manitoba

Winnipeg city councillor mulls transit service cuts during coronavirus
Winnipeg city councillor Shawn Nason is asking why Winnipeg Transit isn't looking at cuts to service as ridership drops during COVID-19. Global's Amber McGuckin has more.

A project 44 years in the making is finally open and running a full schedule — at a time when few people are taking the bus.

The Southwest Transit Corridor quietly opened last week to no fanfare. The corridor, which links the University of Manitoba to downtown Winnipeg, opened in the middle of a global coronavirus pandemic.

Coun. Janice Lukes told 680 CJOB Monday morning that it’s bittersweet to see the second phase of rapid transit open at a time when bus ridership is down due to COVID-19.

READ MORE: Winnipeg Transit proposes faster ‘Blue Line’ routes when Southwest Transit corridor opens

“Everything’s upside down,” said Lukes.

“I’m telling people, don’t go on play structures. Don’t hang out with your friends on the weekends. Don’t go and take the bus. You know, it’s a crazy world right now.”

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Lukes, who is the councillor for Waverley West, campaigned on making sure the corridor was built.

City administrators first recommended building the corridor in the late 1970s. But now that it’s finally open, it makes little sense to run buses down the corridor at high frequency when transit ridership is down 70 per cent, said Lukes.

READ MORE: City shows off Winnipeg’s Southwest Transitway in online video

“My understanding was that maybe an enhanced Saturday schedule would be how the routes and how the system would be introduced,” said Lukes.

“Well, they’ve posted signs, they’ve done advertising. All this work has been going on.

I just can’t comprehend why it’s running at high-frequency mode.”

Cities all over the country are “bleeding money,” said Lukes, and have started reducing their transit schedules.

To not do the same in Winnipeg speaks of fiscal irresponsibility, she said.

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“I’m not happy right now.”

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David Driedger, spokesperson for the City of Winnipeg, said the transit department has four service changes yearly and a significant amount of planning is needed to change them.

“Winnipeg Transit is working with operators and the ATU (Amalgamated Transit Union) to consider service reductions across the city as Transit continues to experience very low utilization on many routes,” he said.

Winnipeg Transit union makes call for hand sanitizer
Winnipeg Transit union makes call for hand sanitizer

Routes along the new service line and the rest of Winnipeg’s transit routes may be reduced or cancelled in the near future, he said, once “new service patterns are understood.”

“Adjusting service with experience along a Rapid Transit Corridor is consistent with what we did with the first phase of Rapid Transit.”

He noted that the extra room on buses right now means people are able to physically distance from one another.

Coun. Scott Gillingham, the city’s finance chair, told 680 CJOB he’s calling for transit cuts, as council looks at ways to stop the financial bleeding during the pandemic.

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“Ultimately I believe we do need to scale back service. Running empty buses up and down a new BRT corridor every five minutes cannot be justified,” he said.

“If the implications are that (the pandemic) will continue until the end of April, then we’re looking at a budget shortfall of $33 million. If it continues until the end of July, we’re looking at a budget shortfall that we’re estimating at about $73 million.”

Gillingham said council has looked into laying off city staff — which could include transit employees — as recently as last week, but no layoffs are imminent just yet.

ATU president John Callahan says service shouldn’t be reduced to make up for the loss in revenue.

Callahan told 680 CJOB that many Winnipeggers still depend on the bus to get from A to B, and that frequent service means people concerned about social distancing can pass up getting on a busier bus without a long wait for the next one.
“(Transit workers) are frontline people, and where’s the love?
“We love them, as long as it’s not costing us? Come on, this is an essential service right now,” he said. “We have to look at the big picture.”
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Callahan said Winnipeg could look to Saskatoon’s example, where buses are limiting ridership to 10 people per bus.
“As soon as they hit 10, they sign the bus out of service. They call the control centre, and they have buses stationary in the downtown area that will then go and be dispatched out to pick up any passengers that are still in need of a ride.”