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Edmonton council makes $15M decision to abandon regional transit service plan


The majority of Edmonton's city council voted Wednesday night to withdraw from a capital region transit plan – an estimated $15-million decision – citing cost and inefficiency. 

Before council was a decision to increase Edmonton Transit Service's operational spending by $10.22 million in 2023 and $2.87 million more in the years after to be a part of the Edmonton Metropolitan Transit Services Commission (EMTSC). 

Doing so would result in an estimated 0.6-per cent tax increase, according to administration. 

Already, previous budget deliberations had left the potential tax increase for Edmontonians sitting around five per cent. 

Or, council could decide to give the required one year's notice of its intent to leave the transit agreement it had already signed onto, in which case it would still need to pay for one interim year of regional service and any costs associated with pulling out of the arrangement. City manager Andre Corbould said the total price tag was in the ballpark of $15 million. 


The transit service – scheduled to launch by the end of April – is supposed to link the communities of Beaumont, Devon, Edmonton, Fort Saskatchewan, Leduc, St. Albert, Spruce Grove and Stony Plain by bus using existing assets and staff. 

"If we all believe in regional transit, I think it's time to do it. We have explored other options. And sure, we could say no today and go spend another 10 years trying to future out the model and end up likely coming back to the same thing we have before us today," Coun. Andrew Knack, who sits on the transit commission's board, told his peers. 

"I think it's just time for us to take that next step."


But Knack failed to convince all of his colleagues the plan in its current form would result in better bus service and was worth the overhead costs of the commission's oversight. 

"I don't know how we can justify to Edmontonians that we are taking a risk on a very costly pilot, that we're going to put $10 million at least for five years," commented Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, who voted against the idea. 

"It broke my heart to vote against a motion on cutting grass four times. I voted against a motion that would have made hard-working 15 employees full time permanent with benefits," he said, referring to earlier budget choices. "Every decision that we have made so far today has been focused on getting value for the money, and getting value for Edmontonians… The things we have approved, in my mind, are more important than this financial hole." 

Coun. Jo-Anne Wright echoed: "I think we are continuing to throw good money after bad." 

Erin Rutherford, Ward Anirniq councillor, asked, "Is it the right investment at the right time?"

"I see this as a real money suck. And when we're already at the tax pressure point we're at, I will have to reconsider some of the local transit decisions we have made. I will at least move for those to be reconsidered, because I don't think we can do both," she said before the vote. 


Councillors Tim Cartmell, Jennifer Rice, Sarah Hamilton, and Karen Principe voted alongside Knack in favour of the regional transit plan. 

"This is a good idea. It is ultimately going to lead to a much better system for our region. It is table stakes for attracting foreign investment," Cartmell argued. 

But he also said he supported the plan from a municipal partnership perspective. 

"I am concerned, here, again, about making a commitment – whether it's to various subsets of our market or the private sector, whether it's to individual neighbourhoods or communities, or whether it's to other members of the region – that we make a commitment and based on our commitment, they make investments, they make decisions, and then we reverse field and that causes implications for them," he commented. 

"It concerns me that's the reputation that we're getting."

"Look," Coun. Aaron Paquette said, "I agree: regional cooperation is really really vital and important. And I think that we actually have good relationships. I've served on regional boards. I talk to our regional partners regularly. And what I can say is the region isn't actually completely aligned on this."

When speaking with reporters Thursday, Paquette said he always kept an open mind to the transit commission. But adding another "level of bureaucracy" to transit operations became harder to justify, he said.

"I've got a community [in my ward] that doesn't even have transit," Paquette said. "There's no way I can go back to them and look them in the eyes and say, 'Yeah, no, we are sending it [buses] out into the region."

"Unlike the bus network redesign where we extensively engaged with our communities and with Edmontonians for years, we have not had the same level of engagement… over essentially transferring our entire service to another organization, and that's sort of a big decision."

While the work to build the commission has been ongoing for more than eight years, Sohi said he still didn't see the long-term benefits of building the new transit authority for the greater Edmonton area.

"There's no analysis, there's no data that was gathered, or reports were generated that would have demonstrated that benefit, particularly since so much has changed since the pandemic," Sohi told reporters Thursday.

"What I voted against was creation of a governance model that is very expensive," he said, adding almost 40 per cent of Edmonton's annual fee to the commission would be spent on overhead costs.

"That's money being taken away from frontline service."

Several councillors expressed interest in exploring how ETS service could be bolstered to provide similar connectivity as the regional network, but for cheaper. 


St. Albert Mayor Cathy Heron told CTV News Edmonton she was "beyond disappointed" with the decision which ended almost a decade of her work.

"I've been championing regional collaboration and regional service delivery for the better part of 12 years and I am just not sensing that commitment from Edmonton right now," Heron said.

She pointed to how the project began with then-Mayor Don Iveson, Coun. Michael Walters, and Wes Broadhead, St. Albert councillor.

"I feel like Edmonton torpedoed the entire project," Heron said.

In her view, creating one regional commission was the best route to build-up transit service across the participating municipalities, citing a business case that also came to that same conclusion.

"When you spend millions of dollars to do a study and they say, yes this is the best way, this is the best way," she added.

"This signals the end of the Regional Transit Commission but I do not think it means Regional Transit is Dead," Leduc Mayor Bob Young said on Twitter. "I am confident we can still build a regional system without a commission." 

The transit commission approved a net $25-million operating budget for 2023 in November. The operational costs for the 13-route system came in around $29 million, with expected revenues landing at $4 million. 

Also that month, St. Albert council also approved a property tax increase of 1.2 per cent to 5.8 per cent in order to accommodate increased transit costs, including its role in the EMTSC, which would cost an unexpected $1.5 million in 2023. St. Albert councillor Sheena Hughes recently proposed her city reconsider its involvement in the deal.

Knack said economic development agencies always pointed to how having a regional transit system is a major attraction for new businesses and workers moving to the Edmonton area.

"That's what folks are looking for," he said. "I'm really, really worried about what the message that we send to the rest of the region is. The region was committed; they put it in their budget[s]."

Paquette disagreed with the notion that the concept of regional transit was dead without a commission structure. He believes the way forward lies in closer collaboration between all municipal administration teams to iron out memorandums of understanding and service agreements.

"What we found [with the commission model] was that it actually wasn't going to be as comprehensive as we hoped, and it was duplicating things we could already do," he said.

Representing Edmonton transit workers, Steve Bradshaw agreed, calling the commission a "flawed" ideal, especially in light of the Arc card, which he called the nucleus of a regional transit system.

"It's just [been] a long string of cost asks," said Bradshaw, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 569 president.

"We are into this with a fairly big hook right now," he added. "This is our opportunity to get out, cut our losses and move forward to a real system."

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Jeremy Thompson and Stephanie Prues Top Stories

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