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Sohi joins other big city mayors asking feds to prop up public transit


Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi is joining the chorus of calls for federal and provincial governments to save Canada's public transit systems. 

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ Big City Mayors’ Caucus, representing 22 cities, published a letter Wednesday saying as the pandemic stretches on, lower fare revenues threaten Canada's biggest cities' ability to offer transit service. 

The group wants the higher levels of government to cover 2022 transit operating shortfalls, and called it the "only way to avoid painful service reductions—which would wound frontline workers, marginalized communities, local economies, and Canada’s recovery."

"People rely on public transit," Sohi said at a news conference on Thursday. "Our economy is dependent on having workers come to work and public transit is essential."

"We are actually positioned to recover our ridership by the end of 2024 if we are able to get this support from the provincial government and the federal government," Sohi said.

If the city does not receive operating support, Sohi says ETS would not be able to maintain the current service level it provides.

"(We need) to make sure that we are ready to provide service when people are coming back to work and when things open up." 


Carrie Hotton-MacDonald, Edmonton Transit Service branch manager, told CTV News that while ridership is gradually returning, a "significant gap" between the revenue generated by fares and operating at 100 per cent system capacity remains.

"I'm really optimistic ridership will return, but it's certainly going to take some time for us to get there," Hotton-MacDonald said, adding that ETS is seeing 58 per cent of normal ridership levels.

In 2020, the city received $59.7 million in operating budget support for public transit through the Safe Restart Agreement.

That federal and provincial funding arrangement represented historic investment into Canadian public transit, said David Cooper, a transit planning and strategy consultant with Leading Mobility.

"The federal government never ever had given funding to cities for public transit for operating," Cooper said. "They give money for capital, for like LRT expansion and big projects.

"The idea was to maintain transit services so that our community members who are essential workers that work in healthcare and retail, that students when they get back to school in-person, and members that were always transit-dependent, such as women, were able to still access public transit for day-to-day life and really to keep society functioning."

This year, the city says it needs $53.7 million to ensure transit service levels remain the same. In Vancouver, TransLink estimates the shortfall could be higher, up to $100 million, and in Toronto, the Toronto Transit Commission projects a $561-million deficit.

"The challenge now is that the funding has an end date, and there hasn't been a clear direction in Alberta and also some parts of Canada," Cooper said.

"Some provinces have signalled that they want to continue the funding because they see the benefit and really the need to prevent a crisis in public transit, and we are waiting to see the level of interest in the federal government and the (Alberta) provincial government to maintain that funding."


Hotton-MacDonald explained that government support is necessary until ridership recovers as the city has limited ways to generate additional revenue to support transit sustainably.

"We are running out of time, and we are running out of options," she said.

To cover the funding shortfall, Hotton-MacDonald said city council could consider hiking property taxes or reducing ETS service levels — a "negative" option that would create a cycle of further reducing users and thereby continually lowering transit revenues.

In December, Edmonton city council voted against increasing fares by 50 cents to $4, citing concerns about the impact on ridership and Edmontonians struggling during the pandemic. Instead, the city will supplement with money from its COVID-19 fund taken from Edmonton's financial stabilization reserve.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Touria Izri Top Stories

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