St. Albert will be paying more than $9 million for regional transit services in the upcoming year, which will bump the city's recommended property tax increase up from 4.6 per cent to 5.8 per cent.
The Edmonton Metropolitan Transit Services Commission (EMTSC) approved its 2023 operating budget on Nov. 17, which resulted in an increase of $1.45 million to the city's 2023 transit budget, for a total of $9.2 million to be paid by St. Albert.
The rising cost equates to a 1.2 per cent property tax increase next year, according to Will Steblyk, the city's public operations service delivery manager.
Earlier this month, The Gazette reported that the city's proposed 2023 budget, which includes a 4.6 per cent property tax increase, did not include the cost of participating in the regional transit network, meaning that the new overall proposed property tax increase next year is 5.8 per cent.
Coun. Wes Brodhead said the system needs to be agile and adaptive to thrive in the region.
"What I would say to those that that say, 'well, it's gonna cost a little bit more,' it may be a little bit in the in the short term, and it certainly will (be) for the next few years because the original business case doesn't exist today," Brodhead said of the changing ridership due to COVID-19 impacts. "Things change and we have to be agile and be able to be creative enough to make the system work in a changing environment, and that's what we've been doing."
"If we're always constrained by what is, we'll never realize what could be," he added.
St. Albert will see four new routes in the deal, with three similar to current commuter routes — the 201, 203, 204, 208 and 211 — currently offered by St. Albert Transit. These four new routes will operate more frequently than the current bus schedule in city.
These commuter routes currently run three times an hour during peak hours, which, on weekdays, is between 5:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. and between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.
On April 30, when the new routes start to run, these commuter routes will change slightly. For example, the 201 and 211 will be combined and run every 10 minutes during peak hours, according to EMTSC communications manager Lucas Warren.
All local transit routes in St. Albert will remain the same.
Why regional transit now
For Brodhead, the commission's approval of the 2023 operating budget is one step closer to accomplishing the mandate they received from the provincial government when the commission was incorporated, and one step closer to better labour movement in the region.
"At the end of the day, the vision of public transit needs to be inclusive of all who need it, and artificial barriers to the movement of people within a region mitigates against public transit use and quite honestly, put barriers in the way of success in the region," Brodhead said in an interview on Nov. 18.
"For people coming to see if the Edmonton region is a region where they'd like to bring their company and locate here, it's table-stakes to have regional transit services that integrate throughout the region."
Regional transit networks like EMTSC are not new to Canada, Brodhead said, giving examples such as Metrolinx in Ontario, and the Victoria Regional Transit Commission in Victoria, B.C.
"The governance model is well understood, it's just new to the Edmonton region," Brodhead said.
Critics of the EMTSC, like St. Albert Coun. Sheena Hughes, have long had concerns St. Albert's participation in the regional network was going to present higher costs for the city, and the existing transit ridership numbers weren't enough to justify additional investment.
"I was very concerned that this was going to become a money pit that we had no control over," Hughes said in an interview on Nov. 18.
"I thought that it might take a year or two to show how this is actually going to cost us way more than anticipated. But in reality, this is showing that the commission is not even open for business yet and we're paying almost $1.5 million more."
Hughes also said that part of her concern is the commission's original business case from 2020 included ridership expectations that were not impacted by COVID-19. However, in June 2020, the commission published an addendum to the business case that states, "the impact the current COVID-19 pandemic has had on the movement of people within the region due to public health and safety requirements should be acknowledged, including the financial consequences to municipalities from reduced ridership."
"However, the creation of [the EMTSC] would represent a long-term decision that could prepare and benefit municipalities for decades to come and not just over the next two to three years."
In a Nov. 18 email, Steblyk, said the city's year-to-date total ridership was 445,900.
"Ridership year-to-date for 2022 represents an 83 per cent increase over the same period of 2021. But overall, ridership has recovered to 72 per cent of pre-pandemic levels," Steblyk said. In 2019, Steblyk said, St. Albert Transit's total ridership was 1,020,583.
Steblyk added that the city estimates ridership numbers will increase 12 per cent in 2023 as "COVID-19 apprehension subsides, more commuters return to work downtown, and ridership is not impacted by another phase of restrictions and closures."
Much of the first four months of 2022 were plagued with the Omicron variant of COVID-19 and in February, Alberta had its highest level of hospitalizations through the entire pandemic. It was June 14 when the provincial government lifted all remaining public health measures.
Incorporated through a provincial ministerial order in January 2021, the commission represents eight Edmonton-area municipalities and features a board of directors composed of an elected councillor from each municipality. St. Albert Coun. Wes Brodhead is the commission's chair.
Since being incorporated in 2021, and during the year prior, the commission has been working to develop a regional transit service plan to improve transit service between the member municipalities. Originally the commission was to include 13 municipalities, but the county councils of Leduc, Parkland, Strathcona, and Sturgeon, as well as the town of Morinville, each voted not to participate in the transit network in 2020.
The Gazette contacted Sturgeon and Strathcona County, as well as Morinville, to ask why each municipality decided not to join the commission, but did not receive a response by deadline.
However, due to existing transit cost-sharing agreements between the City of Leduc and Leduc County, as well as between Parkland County and Spruce Grove and Stony Plain, Leduc County and Parkland County will be paying into the commission's budget in 2023, despite not being represented members on the commission, according to the budget.
In the approved 2023 budget, Leduc County is set to pay $696,920, while Parkland County will contribute $325,884.
The commission's total budget is $29.1 million, which is funded through fare and non-fare revenue ($3.9 million), and fees levied onto the eight municipalities that make up the commission.
If approved by its council, The City of Edmonton will be paying the most of all of the municipalities, with a $10.3 million share of the budget.
St. Albert's $9.2 million share of the budget includes the cost of operating local, regional, and para-transit services; a base fee to fund the commission's organizational operations; a debt-service fee resulting from the 2021 and 2022 debt-funded operation of the commission; and an indirect operations service cost, according to the budget.
With a service plan for the first phase of regional transit already in place, the commission's approval of its annual budget sets the stage for an April 30 start date. On that day, barring any unexpected changes, 13 new regional transit routes will begin running throughout the eight municipalities that make up the EMTSC.