By Steve Bradshaw
Edmonton City Council is being asked to upload our Edmonton Transit Service into a regional system responsible for public transit throughout the entire Edmonton metropolitan area.
City councillors will have to decide this month whether Edmonton will participate in Phase 1 of the initiative.
The Edmonton Metropolitan Transit Services Commission was set up in January 2021 with the approval of the provincial government. A target date of 2023 was set for the Phase 2 roll-out of regional services with a full upload of regional transit services in Phase 3, planned for 2026.
And, it’s true, regional transit is a great idea. Regionalized transit’s time has come and it’s appropriate that duplications of effort and cost be eliminated. There’s no question about that.
But … there are serious concerns about the current Edmonton Metropolitan Transit Services scheme. Here’s a brief list to consider:
1. It won’t apply to the whole region. The second largest partner, Strathcona County, agreed to be part of the regional commission but opted out in 2020 before the commission was formally established. They took their millions of dollars in budget share with them. Their council decided that the regional system they have works perfectly well and there is no need to fund an additional entity when everything is working fine as it is.
2. We already have a regional system that includes all partners. Buses come and go from and to all regional municipalities that would be served by the “regional system” plus Strathcona County. The regional fare initiative is nearing the end of its trial and will be implemented shortly. It’s the best in Canada.
3. There are added costs to this initiative. Originally proponents predicted efficiencies. Not anymore. In fact, they’re asking municipalities to pay twice by funding an operating line of credit and directly funding their payroll. They promised it would cost less, not more. The demand for more and more money will never end, and…
4. Municipalities will give up direct control of their systems to the regional system without direct oversight. Councils will be expected to just pay the bill and will have no direct say into where service is provided. Unless, of course, they want to pay yet more.
5. Coupled with the loss of control will be a continued liability as the municipalities will still be on the hook when things go wrong. It’s a “pay-the-bill-then-pay-for-our-mistakes” system.
6. ETS may not be perfect, but it is a great system. Much effort and resources are expended to deliver a world-class transit system. This initiative will simply add another layer of bureaucracy to an already complex system.
7. There’s only so much Edmonton city budget to go around. If we fund this deeply flawed plan, what other valuable and viable initiatives will lose out when we already have a great transit system?
8. Council is being asked to approve Phase 1 of the plan, but no information on Phase 2 is provided. Why? What is missing? When we’ve already sunk significant resources into Phase 1, Phase 2 could come along with problems we never dreamed of.
9. The folks at the EMTSC keep missing agreed-to information deadlines. If they’re unable to keep these simple promises, can we expect them to run a complex transit system?
10. Service hours will be uploaded to Regional and dumped into a bucket, then re-distributed by the regional system. Will ETS riders give up service hours to provide more service to regional municipalities? Already, the EMTSC has indicated they will place bus stops further apart. What other service reductions can we expect?
EMTSC CEO Paul Jankowsky, when asked what his vision for an operating model is, told me: “It’s too soon to tell.” It should be a concern that they plan to put some regional service on the road next year but don’t appear to know what their service model is.
When promoting the scheme, St. Albert City Councillor Wes Brodhead, Chair of the Edmonton Metropolitan Transit Commission, has repeatedly promised it would save money.
No one is saying that any more.
Bills keep piling up and municipalities keep getting asked for more. Efficiencies of $3.9 million that were promised in the original business case have now been revised to at least $7.2 million above the business case, plus additional fees, base expenses and other costs for Phase 1 alone. Edmonton’s City Administration says the full amount is still unknown.
Costs can be expected to continue to rise until a full upload of regional transit services in Phase 3, scheduled for 2026, takes place.
It’s time some other municipalities, notably Edmonton, took a good look at Strathcona County’s rationale for pulling out and at Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi’s concern that the regional plan is “a backdoor way to privatize ETS.”
Maybe a good hard look should be taken at where all the money going to the EMTSC is being spent, as well.
Or maybe the whole thing should be recognized for the stinkeroo it looks like and municipalities should take their money and run.
Steve Bradshaw is president of Local 569 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents 2,700 active members in five bargaining units, Edmonton Transit Service, ETS DATS, Edmonton on Demand, St. Albert Transit, and Red Deer Transit.