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Portage and Main: Winnipeg council debates opening intersection to pedestrians

WINNIPEG — The fate of a landmark intersection in Winnipeg went before city council Thursday, as members debated whether to reopen the area to pedestrians after more than 40 years.

Mayor Scott Gillingham is in favour of reopening Portage Avenue and Main Street to foot traffic by the summer of 2025, as a report says needed repairs to the intersection will be costly.

“We’re making decisions today that need to have the long term in focus,” Gillingham told reporters. 

“What I don’t want is 30 years from now for a generation of Winnipeggers to say, ‘The council of the day has really left us with an expensive fix here.'”

Council was expected to vote on the motion later Thursday.  

Concrete barriers have prevented pedestrian crossings at the intersection for decades, forcing people to go through the underground concourse.

A city study found repairing the intersection while maintaining the underground walkway would cost $73 million and disrupt traffic for up to five years. 

Much of the work would involve repairing a leaky membrane that prevents the underground from flooding. Drips are often noticeable after rainstorms. 

Gillingham, who was against the reopening in the last election campaign, said the repairs could be less expensive and disruptive if the underground concourse is closed and the intersection reopened to pedestrians.

“The practical alternative remains to open the intersection to pedestrian traffic at street level, avoid up to five years of traffic delays and to decommission the concourse,” he said. 

Earlier Thursday, council heard concerns about the proposal.

Aaron Dolyniuk, a representative from the Manitoba Trucking Association, said the organization doesn’t object to the idea, but it is concerned transportation trucks would not have access to all driving lanes.

Meanwhile, a consultant who works with people with disabilities said reopening the intersection to pedestrians would eliminate barriers, as the underground concourse isn’t accessible 24-7 and can be confusing to navigate.

“The status quo can’t remain,” said Patrick Stewart with the Independent Living Resource Centre. 

One councillor accused the mayor of rushing the motion without consulting Winnipeggers. 

“It’s important that the citizens of Winnipeg have this say,” said council member Russ Wyatt. 

He has proposed having another plebiscite, similar to a non-binding one held in 2018, when 65 per cent of voters opted for keeping the pedestrian barriers up. 

The intersection holds a special place in Winnipeg hearts.

It has inspired a song, a stamp and years of passionate debate among Winnipeg residents since it was closed in 1979, when developers agreed to build an adjacent office tower and an underground mall on the condition the city force pedestrians below street level. 

People have congregated by the thousands at the intersection to celebrate milestones, from the end of war to the return of the National Hockey League. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 21, 2024.

Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press

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