Edmonton to explore new funding ideas for city’s public transit system

The LRT pictured in Edmonton Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. Wes Rosa, Global News

How to better fund public transit in Edmonton is something the city’s administration has been asked to look at more closely following a city council vote on Tuesday.

The motion passed calls on administration to come up with a report to outline “a predictable, sustainable funding formula that sees incremental but impactful increases to the transit system going forward and (to provide) an outline of current capacity for service growth.”

“(It’s) time to modernize how we fund our system,” Coun. Aaron Paquette said at Tuesday’s council meeting, adding that issues faced by the transit system during the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the need for stable and secure funding and there is “no better time than now to start exploring this.”

READ MORE: City of Edmonton provides 1st interim report reviewing bus network redesign

An interim report presented to the city’s executive committee last week notes that for Edmonton to reach its goal of 50 per cent of citizens’ trips involving transit use, cycling or walking, “several levers need to be engaged.”

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The report studied 20 potential funding tools and identified 10 that the city could look at implementing to help ensure transit has consistent and sustainable funding. Some of the options explored in the report include the use of community revitalization levies, adjusting how properties are taxed based on their proximity to public transit infrastructure, a fuel tax, increased parking fees, additional vehicle registration fees and imposing a new tourism levy on hotel or vacation rental bookings.

Some of the ideas being looked at, like a fuel tax or additional vehicle registration fees, would require legislative changes to be brought in by the province.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Coun. Anne Stevenson said she wondered if the city should also look at the potential benefits of adding an extra dollar to the cost of tickets for major sports and entertainment events to help offset transit costs. The city currently provides free transit for people attending Edmonton Elks games. Stevenson noted the last time she was at Commonwealth Stadium, there was a large number of people lined up to take an LRT train home.

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“I don’t think anyone was paying for transit, whereas if that was built into your ticket — let’s say to the Elks — it’s an extra dollar on your ticket and you get free transit to the game as part of that,” she said.

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Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said while he was in favour of looking at alternative funding sources, he also believes advocating for long-term sustainable operational support from the province and from Ottawa remains key.

“These tools that we are looking at will provide some relief, but not significant,” he said.

Coun. Michael Janz said while he believes looking at creative solutions to respond to transit funding issues is admirable, he believes the tools being proposed are not “progressive solutions.”

As the only councillor to oppose the motion on Tuesday, Janz said he would be in favour of focusing on pushing for more funding from other levels of government rather than “nickel-and-diming drivers,” some of whom he said need to drive their own vehicles for work.

“(This) will be seen as a very adversarial move,” he said, adding that he believes implementing some of the proposed tools will present significant and complex challenges and still may not solve the problem.

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Paquette said he believes the ideas being proposed are not intended to discourage people from driving cars but to help make transit more attractive by increasing funding to address concerns about safety, cleanliness and efficiency. He added that the net economic benefits transit provides to the city also have an indirect positive impact on those who do not use transit by helping to keep taxes down.

The interim report discussed by council Tuesday was compiled by Leading Mobility, a transportation planning firm.

“The pandemic has had major impacts on transit agencies’ operating budgets,” the report notes. “The federal and provincial governments met this challenge by providing unprecedented levels of operating subsidy to transit, but the longevity of this funding is unknown.”

READ MORE: Alberta government announces it will match federal funding for transit

The city currently relies mostly on property taxes and transit fares to pay for its transit system. When transit usage was cut roughly in half by the COVID-19 pandemic, Edmonton received emergency operating funding from both the federal and provincial governments.

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