Podcast hops the metaphoric bus to ponder transit revenues

Podcast hops the metaphoric bus to ponder transit revenues

· The Pulse

Although Edmonton's transit ridership has rebounded to pre-pandemic numbers, at 5.3 million riders in May compared to 2.3 million in April 2021, the co-hosts of Speaking Municipally explained that there are wrinkles to the news in Episode 268 of the podcast.

"Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi posted this week that the severity of crimes on the LRT is dropping — this as transit ridership is substantially rebounding," said co-host Troy Pavlek. "We have had a 130% increase in ridership since spring 2021."

But co-host Mack Male said the city has also observed transit demand increase while the money it collects from riders hasn't kept pace. "What's not so great about transit, of course, remains revenues," Male said. "Revenues remain low relative to the growth in ridership."

In 2023, the City of Edmonton collected $17 million less in fares than it forecasted from transit riders. Male pondered if the Arc card, which launched in 2022, is behind the trend — specifically when the card readers fail and bus drivers wave people on without the city collecting their fare. "It happens all the time," Male said. "I just feel like there has to be a financial impact of that."

Pavlek, on the other hand, said that the city has designed a system where transit revenues could logically be expected to fall if ridership increases. "Arc fares are cheaper than individual ticket fares. Arc cards mean that anyone who previously would have overpaid over a monthly (transit pass) now is guaranteed to not overpay," he said.

Male, though, was not convinced that this is as big of a factor as the card-reader dilemma. "Who knows if you have money on the card or not," he said.

The co-hosts also examined the strange disparity between the growth in ridership on Edmonton's buses versus its LRT lines, which remain at 75% of their pre-pandemic levels. "And so what's fascinating about that, to me, is that means we've had a disproportionate massive increase in bus ridership," Pavlek said.

Beyond the bus, the co-hosts examined the dramatic breakdown in the relationship between city council and the Edmonton Police Commission. In early June, the commission declined to provide council with its audit plan. Then, on June 11 and 12, it declined to show up to city hall to speak to council in public at all. Male suggested that the audit snub was not a surprise but the no-show at a public meeting (and a regularly scheduled private lunch that Coun. Erin Rutherford mentioned to reporters) was.

Yet another surprise the co-hosts discussed was how Coun. Tim Cartmell's motion to ask city administration to contemplate what might happen if it sold undeveloped sections of Blatchford to private developers met its end. Male noted the public record is mixed. He said Global News has reported the motion died on the floor but that the city's records show it was never put on the floor.

Hear more about Blatchford, buses, the Edmonton Police Commission, the capital budget, and a dispatch from our newsroom, on the June 14 episode of Taproot's civic affairs podcast.

Photo: Transit ridership is back to where it was before the pandemic, but there are caveats — such as bus ridership increasing but LRT ridership remaining weak. (Supplied)