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. 

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 569 President Steve Bradshaw (Photo: Steve Bradshaw).

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:

Edmonton Metropolitan Transit Services Commission CEO Paul Jankowsky (Photo: EMTSC).

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. 

St. Albert City Councillor Wes Brodhead, Chair of the Edmonton Metropolitan Transit Commission (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

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?

Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, concerned plan is a “backdoor way to privatize ETS” (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

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.

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8 Comments

  1. It’s unfortunate, but Edmonton Transit is very messed up. The LRT expansion is also a disaster. Who in their right mind would even think of putting a subway station right next to a hospital? Also, the LRT isn’t safe, as dangerous people frequent the stations. The entire Edmonton Transit system doesn’t help commuters. There are people who cannot drive, and they have to get around. This is more difficult, because of continuing construction, for who knows what reasons, such as on 104th Avenue, by Grant MacEwen University, and Unity Square, parts of Jasper Avenue, and other places. Busses often wait at stops for no real reason, drive at a snails pace, hitting red lights, making the ride longer than it should be, and don’t connect with other busses, as a result. Edmonton Transit and the LRT needs a complete overhaul.

  2. Sounds like the good ‘ol boys are back in town. For a big modern city, Edmonton sure has a lot of old style practices and people in decision-making capacities.
    It looks and sounds like corruption. I don’t know that it is. Most likely just incompetence, that most Albertan business practice.

  3. So many if the issues in this post are hyper-focused on the metro Edmonton area and so of little interest to readers who don’t live in the capital region. But there are examples of regional transit systems that might be informative.

    – in my own community of Grande Prairie, transit is poor — only half-hourly during peak hours, and hourly during off-peak, and routes take far too long for a city our size — and only serves neighbourhoods within City limits, meaning bedroom communities in the County aren’t served at all, even through they are literally abutting the City
    – Halifax-Dartmouth has an extensive transit system that even includes the cross-harbour ferries on one fare, although aside from the ferries their system is bus-only: no streetcars, subway, or LRT
    – Ottawa and Gatineau, despite being cities in different provinces with widely divergent approaches to government, have a seamlessly interlinking transit system that allows riders to transfer between the two systems on one fare; that said, Ottawa’s attempt to build & operate an LRT system have not exactly met with stellar success

    I will say this: governance and funding aside, the real success of a regional transit system must be gauged on the rider experience. Can the rider get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ in a reasonable length of time on one reasonable fare? Can they transfer from adjacent systems at no additional cost? Does the system provide the kind of service that can get our car-bound daily commuters out of their cars and onto transit, thereby reducing CO2 emissions, reducing demand for ever-expanding roadway networks, and limiting the wastage of valuable city centre land for parking lots?

    1. You’ve hit on it exactly Jerry, in your last paragraph.
      If these decision-makers in the public transit business just focused on rider experience and destination success, even to the exclusion of other ‘goals’, these transit systems would instantly become more sustainable.

  4. As a resident of Red Deer, I’d love to see our city included in a regional plan with Edmonton. And Calgary.

    An integrated plan on the corridor between Edmonton and Calgary would serve almost 75% of Alberta’s population and do a lot to reduce greenhouse gas emission.

    One can dream.

  5. Mr Bradshaw. Whatever makes you think ETS is “world class system”. In its good moments, it’s OK. But world class? Never. Buses and rapid transit can be dirty and dangerous; drivers’ people skills run the gamut from good to dismal. (Some look pretty shabby). If you want world class, check out transit in cities like Tokyo, Oslo or Helsinki.

  6. Edmonton needs a consolidated payment and transfer system, moreso than a consoldiated transit behemouth, to allow seamless transfer between systems. Lots of cities have implemented contactless payment where the user taps in and taps off and the system calculates the fare and revenue share between various agencies: ex. Translink in Queensland, Clipper in the Bay Area. This would also open up outsourcing operations to private companies, as in Australia and the UK where the government opens up the concessins to competitive bid.

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