Was Juba crazy?

During a Conservative Party political meeting many years ago in the Petersfield Community Hall, I sat down with Stephen Juba to discuss the issues of the day. While I may have wanted to talk about the goings on in the province, the former mayor of Winnipeg quickly changed the subject. Actually, Juba launched into a long speech about the merits of monorail public transit for Winnipeg.

By this time, the former mayor had been long out of civic politics and was spending his remaining years in the bucolic rural setting of Petersfield, but that didn’t stop him from continuing to tell anyone who would listen that the city had made a colossal blunder by not adopting his pet project. It was evident that Juba still felt bitter about the criticism he received when he initially proposed the monorail.

In the 1970s, Juba was convinced the   city needed a rapid transit system. He had brought the city the Pan Am Games in 1967, persuaded the province to commit $3 million in funding for the $6-million Disraeli Freeway, used the “Battle of the Biffy” with then Minister of Public Works Russell Doern to score political points, and had been able to cajole almost anyone into believing he possessed the correct vision for the future of the city.

But the monorail was a different matter, which defied Juba’s persuasive talent as the city’s first "supermayor" since the creation of Unicity in 1972. Other politicians and the press attacked Juba’s monorail proposal as the crazed rantings of a civic politician.

Juba was incensed by the criticism he received and threatened to resign as the top civic politician. Yet, no one took his outburst too seriously, as Juba had constantly used the same tactic to get his way over his 21-year career as mayor. 

The only solace for Juba was being able to press the city administration into preparing a report on monorail service. But the city-generated report was highly critical of Juba’s pet project to have trains streaking across the city above the heads of Winnipeggers. The mayor went into another snit and threatened not to run in the upcoming civic election. On October 5, at the last possible moment, Juba announced he was seeking re-election, but 48 hours later he marched into city hall with 30 reporters in tow and withdrew  his name from the mayoralty race.

Many have speculated on why Juba decided at that moment to withdraw his name. Some have argued that the reason for his withdrawal was that Juba feared losing the election to two powerful opponents — Robert Stein and Bill Norrie. Other said Juba was simply being vindictive, including potential candidate Bernie Wolfe. Their argument was that Juba timed his withdrawal so that it would be too late for other candidates to file their nomination papers. 

Wolfe told author Allan Levine for the book Your Worship: The Lives of Eight of Canada’s Most Unforgettable Mayors: “I got snookered. There was no way I was going to run against a myth. I’m a realist. It was sheer vindictiveness on his part (to  withdraw at the last moment and prevent other candidates from entering the mayoralty race).”

Juba would later dismiss such accusation, instead saying he didn’t run due to the negative report about his monorail pet project.

It was one of the few wars he didn’t win while mayor. And even in instances when he was the so-called loser, he managed to turn the loss into a political advantage. The Tribune called  Juba “the canniest of politicians,” and others  referred to him as “the master politician.”

The newest incarnation of “supermayor” is apparently a fan of Juba’s monorail, although under the guise of a light-rail rapid transit (LRT). 

Similar to Juba before him, Mayor Sam Katz has asked city officials to make a report on the possibility of forgoing bus rapid transit (BRT) in favour of some other technology, including ultra-lightweight aluminum trams suspended above street level.

Free Press writer Bartley Kives said several city sources have confirmed that Katz wants to leapfrog over the city’s planned bus corridor and implement another mode of rapid transit. 

During the announcement of the $327-million BRT corridor — cost-shared by the city, province and Ottawa — connecting the downtown with the University of Manitoba, Katz told reporters, “Light rail is just around the corner.”

Much of the objection to Juba’s pet project was based on cost — $1 million per mile. Today, it is still felt by many that cost is a factor in creating a rapid transit system for the city. It is estimated to cost at least eight times as much  to build a light-rail track and purchase cars for the same corridor now being proposed for the BRT.

Deborah Goodfellow, WinnipegREALTORS® 2009 president and a member of the advisory committee for the city’s Rapid Transit Task Force in 2004-05, said the six-members looked into every conceivable transit option from across the globe. “No stone was left unturned,” she said.

The general consensus of the committee was that LRT was the best option, but cost was definitely a factor. Transcona Councillor Russ Wyatt, the chair of the rapid transit task force of which Goodfellow was a member, said he would favour a rapid-transit technology not involving buses as long as it is feasible. He indicated a form of electrically-powered vehicles operating on a track makes sense in a province which generates relatively cheap hydro-electrical power 

Goodfellow said LRT will be needed in Winnipeg’s future and the BRT corridor is the first step toward that objective.

Meanwhile, WinnipegREALTORS® has officially taken the position to support the BRT system. The first phase — a 3.6-kilometre stretch from Queen Elizabeth Way to Jubilee Avenue — is expected to be started this summer at a cost of $138 million. The second phase of the southwest rapid transit corridor is still several years away, which gives time for other technology options to be considered for the six-kilometre run from Jubilee to Bison Drive, according to Kives’ sources. 

If Juba’s plan had not been dismissed, today’s debate on the type of rapid transit system needed by Winnipeg would be mute. Maybe he wasn’t as “crazy” as most officials and the press thought at the time.