Developing the CP rail yards still an Opportunity
Last month the Manitoba government terminated the task force set up under the previous government to consider moving the Canadian Pacific rail yards out of inner city Winnipeg. While we don’t know what will happen next, this move was expected and is needed.
Considering what can be done about the rail yards is a huge, complicated and costly matter. Setting up a public task force to deal with all of these issues under the leadership of former premier Jean Charest was premature. High level negotiations will be needed to direct any change in land use, but strategic positioning and timing are important. The former government went public when a great deal of work behind the scenes was needed first.
The current government had to create its own process for addressing this opportunity. It’s customary that new governments put their brand on important on-going initiatives.
Second, the government needs to get its own intelligence in place on the technical, logistical, commercial and political requirements involved and on how to effectively manage a development process. As the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg reported in 2012, a feasibility study is needed to provide research based knowledge on what can be done to move the rail yards. This knowledge is needed to give all levels of government the perspective needed to make preliminary decisions, and to replace speculation with substance. This advice is even more pertinent today.
The SPCW report pointed to research needed for assessing the costs of moving the rail yards, soil remediation, building new infrastructure and measuring the impact on local industry. Equally important, the report also advocated investigating the tax potential of residential and commercial development, cost savings of avoiding bridge replacement, alternative uses of the rail right of way through the city (rapid transit for example), energy reduction savings and other opportunities for generating revenue from this land.
In 2012 when public discussions were facilitated by the Free Press on the merits of a rail yard development, two things were clearly evident. On one hand people were operating on the basis of supposition and personal opinion rather than facts or research. This approach persists today. On the other hand, once we started taking about practical possibilities and tangible opportunities, everyone agreed a development of the rail yards property would be a tremendous benefit for the city and all residents into the next century.
Third, any change for the rail way through the city has to be initiated by the City of Winnipeg according to the federal Rail Relocation and Crossings Act (1985). Therefore, the Province and the City need to think through their interests and common issues involved in moving the rail yards. While the Mayor and Council are more visionary than the last regime and will be receptive to considering a development process, they also need basic information before committing to negotiations with CP Railway.
A paced approach to developing this property can also respond to evolving conditions. Ongoing expansion of CentrePort in particular will make a huge difference in how the railway sees benefit in moving. Having business oriented governments at three levels now may also lead to more support for developing the rail yards for community as well as corporate benefit. And public concern with the safety of rail traffic through urban areas only adds to the motivation for railway relocation.
With a new approach to this issue, I hope we can shift the focus from just moving the rail yards to exercising an opportunity to address city needs. For Winnipeg to grow and meet the needs of citizens, depends on how we turn problems into potential, and the CP property can be one asset in a collective vision.
So let’s be patient but supportive and encourage the city and provincial governments to develop this parcel of real estate for the good of citizens, all levels of governments, local business and the railway corporation. I think the economic, environmental and social benefits of a change in land use can justify the costs and effort involved, but let’s do the research and collective thinking to make sure.