Opinions on opening Portage and Main Differ

City motion starts process that could open the intersection to pedestrians

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

On Oct. 25, 2017, Winnipeg City Council voted 10 to five in favour of a motion to spend $3.5 million to do design and repair work at the Portage Avenue and Main Street intersection. This could eventually lead to people crossing the intersection by foot, a prospect Winnipeggers have mixed opinions on.

Rick Sparling has lived in Winnipeg since 1994 and had been in the city on occasion before Portage and Main was closed to pedestrians in 1979.

“It was a nightmare, actually,” he says of traffic before the intersection was closed to walkers. Sparling believes that given there are more cars on the road in Winnipeg today than in 1979, congestion would be much worse now if the crossing is opened to foot traffic.

A key factor he cites as making Portage and Main a uniquely problematic intersection is that many buses go through it. Transit routes going through the intersection include the routes 24 (Ness Express), 18 (North Main -Corydon), 11 (Portage - Kildonan), 21 (Portage Express) and the 43 (Munroe), among many others.

Another concern Sparling has is cost. Dillon Consulting, in a report commissioned by the City of Winnipeg, estimated the cost of opening Portage and Main to be $11.6 million. This includes $5.5 million in transit capital costs to maintain bus service levels. Sparling notes that additional yearly cost to operate more buses of $1.866 million is not included in that figure.

“I just don’t see what is going to happen if they open it up to pedestrians,” he says.

Nils Vik, who owns Parlour Coffee (which is about a five-minute walk from Portage and Main), says he understands people who are not familiar with the neighbourhood can view opening the intersection as pointless.

“But as someone who has spent the last six years navigating that intersection by foot, personally, I can say that it is very inconvenient,” Vik says.

He adds that it is particularly difficult for tourists visiting Winnipeg, and he does not envy concierges at the Fairmont Hotel who have a tricky task explaining how to cross Main Street in Winnipeg given the pedestrian blockades.

Vik notes that most of Parlour Coffee’s customers are familiar with the neighbourhood and underground walkway network, but he has met office workers who spend five days a week downtown confounded by the system.

“It is incredibly confusing and disorienting, even to those who try to use it every once in awhile,” Vik says.

Sparling says opening Portage and Main to pedestrians should be put to a referendum, which he is confident would result in Winnipeggers voting to keep it closed. Vik, however, says that based on his experience, most people in downtown Winnipeg on the east side of Main Street would support opening the intersection.

Published in Volume 72, Number 10 of The Uniter (November 16, 2017)

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