Edmonton council votes against regional transit funding, killing plan

For nearly a decade, a plan was in the works to consolidate eight regional transit systems into one for the Edmonton area. Late Wednesday night, that plan was effectively killed after Edmonton city council failed to pass a motion to fund a regional transit commission.

Mayor Amarjeet Sohi and councillors Michael Janz, Aaron Paquette, Erin Rutherford, Ashley Salvador, Anne Stevenson, Keren Tang and Jo-Anne Wright voted against funding the commission.

The commission consisted of members from Beaumont, Devon, Edmonton, Fort Saskatchewan, Leduc, St. Albert, Spruce Grove and Stony Plain. The unified system would have been similar to the TransLink system in Metro Vancouver.

Click to play video: 'Edmonton council supports regional transit plan, but doesn’t commit funding'

Edmonton council supports regional transit plan, but doesn’t commit funding

While some councillors said the plan was expensive red tape and Edmonton wouldn’t see a good return on investment, others believed the regional transit system would create efficiencies that would benefit all transit users.

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Ward Nakota Isga coun. Andrew Knack, who is a member of the commission, said regional transit is an asset that can attract and retain talent, but with the city’s financial state, councillors are wary of the project.

“I worry that there was a bit of muddiness because the budget’s been tight and every dollar we spend more of is something that raises taxes,” said Knack.

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Sohi said he was opposed to the commission model, explaining that 40 per cent of the $49.5 million proposed to fund the commission would have gone to overhead.

“What I voted against is the creation of a governance model that is very expensive,” said Sohi.

Sohi said he would rather see money going towards improving off-peak service and safety on ETS.

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Paquette, councillor for ward Dene, said after looking more into the regional plan, it wasn’t going to be as comprehensive as hoped and it was duplicating things the city could already do.

“It was really hard to justify $50 million over five years for an added level of bureaucracy that wouldn’t solve the transit concerns we actually have,” he said.

Paquette said some of his northeast Edmonton constituents don’t have any access to transit and he wouldn’t be able to look them in the eyes if he approved this project.

“How do I go back and justify to Edmontonians and say: ‘we’ve got this grander vision of a regional transit but none of your local service is going to be improved’?”

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But Knack said regional co-operation would make service everywhere more efficient.

“It might not be more efficient on day one, but over time, it’s going to be better for the entire region because instead of running three buses on the same route, you run one and you redistribute your other two,” he said.

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Knack said it will cost up to $15 million to back out of the agreement because of commitments made to the other cities. But using that as a reason to stay in is a sunk-cost fallacy, says Paquette.

“It doesn’t make sense. At some point, if you’re going to stop, you say stop, and understand the money you’ve spent, unfortunately, it’s not going to get you what you dreamed of but you’re not going to keep throwing good money after bad,” said Paquette.

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Cathy Heron, mayor of St. Albert, said she was “heartbroken” about the decision and that the move has eroded trust between Edmonton and the regional partners.

“The seven mayors who were completely committed to this do not want to pay for the dissolution of it. This falls on Edmonton’s shoulders.”

Heron said she believes dissolving the commission will come with legal challenges.

“All the work and all the money that’s been spent… I don’t know how we’re going to get out of it.”

Click to play video: 'Edmonton budget increase could now be 5% — and they’re not done yet'

Edmonton budget increase could now be 5% — and they’re not done yet

Addressing the budget overall, Knack said he’s not sure if he can go to his constituents and justify the tax increase by outlining benefits they will be paying for.

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“If we’re going to be asking Edmontonians to have to spend more money on their taxes, we need to clearly be able to show where that money is going,” said Knack.

Existing transit partnerships will continue and a metropolitan transit service in the area is still possible in the future. But for now, the plan will not be going forward.

The decision was made during budget deliberations, which are scheduled to end Friday.

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