The Alberta government has committed to matching federal funding for municipal transportation across the province because a lot of revenue has been lost during the COVID-19 pandemic.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Premier Jason Kenney announced the province is contributing nearly $80 million to the initiative, which, combined with federal dollars, would bring the total support to $159 million.
“Financial relief is on its way so that busses, LRTs can continue to serve Albertans across the province,” Kenney told reporters.
Calgary Transit will receive $82.3 million as part of the joint funding.
According to officials, Calgary Transit is projecting an $89-million revenue shortfall in 2022, if ridership continues to rebound to between 60 and 75 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.
“We still have a little bit more to go but without this funding I don’t know what we would’ve done,” Calgary mayor Jyoti Gondek said. “This has gone a long way to helping us get back to the service levels that we need to provide.”
It is the third year of shortfalls for the transit service, after a gap of $93 million in 2020 and $106 million in 2021.
Calgary Transit officials said the service only saw 39 per cent of the typical rider volume in 2021, and that is expected to increase to 60 per cent in 2022.
In response to a drop in ridership, Calgary Transit was forced to roll back service, which is currently at 85 per cent of regular service levels.
According to Calgary Transit, reductions of service could continue if the revenue shortfall isn’t covered.
“The transit team, the leadership did their best to make sure they were assessing which routes they needed to keep, the service levels they had, and which ones we could cut,” Gondek said.
“At the end of the day, there are people in every part of this city that need to get to appointments and to work and to school, so getting back to where we were is going to take a little bit of time, but this gets us so much closer than we were.”
City officials said Calgary Transit will plan how to use the funding over the next month, but that the funding will be applied to the projected 2022 revenue shortfall as well as fund initiatives to improve service.
According to the City of Calgary, Calgary Transit is also in the process of hiring a “significant number” of operators and mechanics to help support the re-introduction of service to pre-pandemic levels.
“We’re grateful to the provincial and federal governments for recognizing the importance of public transportation as our city recovers,” Calgary Transit director Sharon Fleming said in a statement.
“This funding will go a long way to fill our 2022 fare revenue gap so that we can build transit back better as we adjust to the new normal of ridership patterns. It will help us to continue to provide a safe, reliable system for our customers to return to.”
In total, 26 Alberta municipalities will receive funding as part of the partnership between the federal government and the province.
That includes Airdrie, Cochrane, Okotoks and Rockyview County, as well as Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Black Diamond and Red Deer.
Funding will also be allocated to the Bow Valley Regional Transit Services, which operates Roam Transit throughout several mountain communities including the town of Banff.
According to Martin Bean, chief administrative officer, ridership peaked at 1.5 million users in 2019 but declined by about 80 per cent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Bean said there have been signs of recovery, and the funding will help prepare for what is expected to be a busy tourism season.
“We’ve addressed that shortfall by not increasing our service as much as we’d planned and now we will be able to do that,” Bean said.
“Being a transit service that operates for visitors and residents, we tend to grow in the summer; we access some trail heads and some scenic routes out to Lake Louise, so we’ll be able to increase our frequency this summer.”
The City of Edmonton is also included in the funding, with the province announcing $66.9 million for that city’s transit system shortfall.
“Transit is a critical service that has been particularly hard hit during the pandemic, and today’s announcement will help to get our transit back on track,” Edmonton mayor Amarjeet Sohi said in a statement.
“This funding will mean that Edmonton will be able to ensure our ridership rates return to pre-pandemic levels by 2024, making us the first municipality to accomplish this.”
Other municipalities that will receive funding in the Edmonton area include Strathcona County, St. Albert, Spruce Grove, Leduc, Fort Saskatchewan, Beaumont and Stony Plain.
— With files from The Canadian Press