The Black Rod

The origin of the Usher of the Black Rod goes back to early fourteenth century England . Today, with no royal duties to perform, the Usher knocks on the doors of the House of Commons with the Black Rod at the start of Parliament to summon the members. The rod is a symbol for the authority of debate in the upper house. We of The Black Rod have since 2005, adopted the symbol to knock some sense and the right questions into the heads of Legislators, pundits, and other opinion makers.

Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

We are citizen journalists in Winnipeg. When not breaking exclusive stories, we analyze news coverage by the mainstream media and highlight bias, ignorance, incompetence, flawed logic, missed angles and, where warranted, good work. We serve as the only overall news monitors in the province of Manitoba. We do the same with politicians (who require even more monitoring.) EMAIL:

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A (Disraeli) Bridge Too Far

A high stakes poker game between anti-car activists and city consultants ended Wednesday morning.

The bicycle buffs doubled down and the city called. Somebody was bluffing and somebody was dealing from the bottom of the deck.

The pot?

Only the design of the Disraeli Bridge rehabilitation project.

You shoulda been there.

And, in theory, you were. Because, you see, the anti-car cabal was representing you, the public, with the full approval of the city reps. Except that you didn't know it.

This is the story of that double-dealing.

Most Winnipeggers thought the public consultations stopped last Spring when the city held open houses on three possible designs for a rebuilt Disraeli freeway.

Shortly afterward they announced the "winnah" ---a four lane bridge with a pedestrian walkway on the east side and a pricetag of $140 million.

But before the project went to tender, the city administration revealed that there had been a teensy weensie change to the plan.

It seemed that the city planners had decided the project would now consist of two-count 'em-two bridges. One would be a refurbished Disraeli Freeway, and the other would be a bicycle/pedestrian bridge. The price was the same; honest, they said.


Where did that come from? A second bridge was never part of the public hearings?

Well, the professional MSM reporters heard the same announcement that you did and must have asked the same questions. They yawned, scratched themselves and went back into hiberation.

So let us answer the question.

The concept of a second bridge dedicated only to pedestrians and bicyclists was the brainchild of an anti-car group called Bike to the Future.

Somehow they managed to bypass the public hearing process and get the ear of the planners on the QT. But don't say it was done secretly. They were so proud of their coup that they bragged about it on the Bike to the Future website.

"Brion asked that it be reflected in the minutes that Bike to the Future's report that led to the separate cycling pedestrian bridge concept that the SAC developed further was inspired by Wardrop Engineering's work on a previous project."

One mystery solved. Now onto the poker game.

You see, another bridge meant another set of public consultations. City planners knew that time was of the essence in the process.

So how do you fast-track public consultations?

Cut out the public part of the equation, of course.

Last November, consultants hired by the city canvassed the anti-car pressure groups for, ahem, advice on who should be involved in the process. The answer turned out to be eight groups who became known as the Collaborative Planning Working Group. The magic eight and their reps:

Jim Chapryk - North Point Douglas Residents' Association.
Anders Swanson - One Green City/Mayor's Environmental Advisory Committee
Janice Lukes - Winnipeg Trails Association
Brion Dolenko - Bike to the Future
Kathleen Leathers - Prairie Pathfinders/representing walking pedestrians (are there any other kind?)
Jordan Van Sewell - South Point Douglas Residents' Association
Brian Timmerman - Exchange District BIZ
Ingrid Zacharias - Elmwood Community Resource Centre

The consultants laid down the rules:

o For credibility and integrity, participate as representatives of broad constituency rather than as an individual. Ensure that your voice is not your own personal opinion, but rather,
the view of the community or organization that you are at the table to represent.

So, you see, you were there in spirit if not in body. And what did you decideā€¦?

It seems there was a strong consensus that cars are bad and should be replaced by bicycles as soon a humanly possible.

While the city officials were thinking how to move 40,000 vehicles across the Red River every day, the CPWG (kind of rolls off the tongue, doesn't it) was thinking how to reduce, minimize, and ultimately eliminate the number of motor vehicles in and around South and North Point Douglas.

Bikes to the Future must have thought they were in the catbird seat. They had gotten themselves a bridge. They controlled the consulation process. And, in their eyes, the city was listening to their ideas to the exclusion of any other groups.

So up went the ante.

You may remember how South Point Douglas residents went to city council asking for the Louise Bridge to be closed to traffic so that it could be turned into a bicycle/pedestrian bridge. That's always been the longterm goal of the CPWG in the Disraeli Bridge project.

They recognize the obvious problem. If they supported a new bridge, then their bargaining power for the Louise Bridge went down. If they held out for the Louise, they would lose the second bridge.

So they worked with the consultants on a new bridge, while secretly doing their best to limit, if not undermine, the plan.

The city consultants, on the other hand, knew that the city was going ahead with the two-bridge plan and needed to get the cosmetic public consultations out of the way.

They told the CPWG there would be three meetings, and only three, to get their opinions.

- In the first, city officials briefed them on the Disraeli project.

- At the second, they got pens and paper and were told to go wild with ideas. Literally, they drew pictures of bridges, like a grade 3 class.
- In the third, they were to pick which idea they liked most (or two at best.)

The bicycle enthusiasts did their best to bend the process to their goal. A proposal to build the second bridge off the Pritchard Boat docks to E.K. died quickly. The curlicue bridge (which appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press on Tuesday, March 17 without any explanation where it came from) made the cut as one of two finalists, along with the city favorite, the bridge off Annabella.

Yesterday morning, the collaborative working group had to hand over their final recommendations. Show your cards.

The bike-lover's heartfelt favorite was the curlicue bridge, so named for the shape of the on-ramp which twists a full circle before connecting to a bridge that would literally be alongside the rebuilt Disraeli Freeway.

But given that the purpose of the two bridge plan was, er, TWO separate and distinct bridges, you can bet this one is going nowhere.

Which leaves one, the Annabella bridge, which was the plan all along before the three month-long diversionary consultation process.

So who won?

* The city listened to "your" views and "fulfilled" its obligations.

* The bike lobby got conned into thinking they had the inside track -- but they get to keep a new bridge.

* The big losers turned out to be half - that's right, half -the residents of South Point Douglas.

Since November, the city has been "consulting" residents on the location and design of the pedestrian/cycling bridge.

Most of them didn't even know it.

The consultations turned out to be with the artists colony off Higgins Avenue (and the odd bikes-uber-cars proponents scattered elsewhere.)

The other half, area homeowners, car owners, taxpayers, voters and news consumers in the area, were played for Jokers by the city administration, planners, and the consultants.

The consultants, by the way, should be called on the carpet by Mayor Sam Katz for

a) fooling half of the people all of the time, or as we said above, they were there 'in spirit if not in body',
b) orchestrating 3 rushed meetings with special interest groups all played against each other, pretending that kind of conduct fulfills the spirit and intent of "neighbourhood planning", and
c) expecting to collect their full pay from taxpayers for a job half done.

Some deal.

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