A requiem for regional transit: What happened and what's next

· The Pulse

Two years after the birth of the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Transit Commission (EMTSC), the CEO is now planning its funeral.

Paul Jankowski, who was hired to lead the organization in May 2021, has been directed by his board to wind down the commission after Edmonton city council decided not to fund its share of the EMTSC budget, leading the city to give notice of its intention to withdraw.

A plan to deal with obligations and dissolve the commission is to be presented at the Jan. 19 EMTSC board meeting. St. Albert city council had planned to consider a motion supporting the disestablishment of the commission on Jan. 10, but Coun. Sheena Hughes withdrew the motion after council consulted with administration in private.

"At this point, I'm going to leave it in the hands of the transit commission board to take the next step," she said.

Whether the demise of the commission means the end of regional transit, or indeed of regional cooperation as a whole, is a matter of debate. Here's a look at what happened and what's next on this file.

A map showing 13 proposed bus routes connecting Edmonton to seven municipalities and the airport

The proposed budget released by the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Transit Commission in October 2022 included plans for 13 routes, including a proposed express line between the Edmonton International Airport and downtown Edmonton. (EMTSC/Facebook)

What was the commission supposed to do?

Regional transit has been in the works for more than a decade, but it started to get serious in 2018 when 13 mayors signed a memorandum of understanding to pursue a consolidated system. A business case was published in 2020, but not all of those municipalities stayed committed. Sturgeon County, Strathcona County, Leduc County, Morinville, and Parkland County dropped out. By the time the EMTSC was created in January 2021, it had eight member municipalities: Beaumont, Devon, Edmonton, Fort Saskatchewan, the City of Leduc, Spruce Grove, St. Albert, and Stony Plain.

The launch was initially planned for September 2022, then was pushed to spring 2023. Phase 1 was slated to have 11 routes across the region, which grew to 13 to accommodate more service to the Edmonton International Airport.

The EMTSC's first operating budget forecast $29 million in expenses and about $4 million in revenue, leaving the remaining $25 million to be shared by the eight member municipalities in proportion to their populations, with Edmonton and St. Albert paying the most.

What changed along the way?

The potential for cold feet on Edmonton's city council — which saw the election of eight new councillors and a new mayor in October 2021 — started to become apparent in March 2022, when council asked administration to analyze the effects of the EMTSC on the Edmonton Transit Service.

Jankowski told St. Albert city council in November that Edmonton's reluctance to modify existing transit service and desire to continue operating its routes through ETS resulted in modifications that jeopardized cost savings.

In September 2022, Edmonton city council's executive committee chose not to offer a recommendation on whether to spend $7.2 million on Phase 1 service plan. Council voted 10-3 to support the plan, but it didn't commit any funding, pushing that instead to the 2023-2026 budget deliberations.

In December, city council voted 8-5 against Coun. Andrew Knack's motion to provide $13 million annually for EMTSC, a decision that is expected to cost the city $15 million. Devon also decided to withdraw.

Does this mean the end of regional transit?

Leduc Mayor Bob Young doesn't think so. "Even though this first effort has failed, I'm confident that as a region we're going to find another way to make it happen," he told CBC Edmonton's Radio Active in December. Mayor Bill Daneluik of Beaumont was similarly hopeful. "Though the Commission would have grown service and ridership for the benefit of our residents and the regional economy, we believe there are still opportunities to collaborate with our immediate neighbours to improve transit service," he said in a release.

There are examples of more piecemeal collaborations within the region. Strathcona County council voted in October to explore collaborating with Edmonton and others on bus rapid transit. Stony Plain Transit, Spruce Grove's on-demand service, and Acheson Transit in Parkland County have joined to create one on-demand system. And the new electronic fare system known as Arc works in Beaumont, Edmonton, Spruce Grove, Strathcona County, and St. Albert, with Fort Saskatchewan and the city of Leduc coming on stream this year.

"Hopefully the Arc card is going to help with (regional cooperation), but again, it's not going to be as good as if it was all under one umbrella," Young told CBC.

Does this mean the end of regional cooperation?

Former city councillor Michael Walters, who was Edmonton's first member of the EMTSC board, certainly thinks it's in danger. "There will need to be some contrition from Edmonton's mayor and council that this was not the easy and inconsequential decision they may think it was," he wrote in Urban Affairs. "Their decision contravened the spirit of collaboration with partners who worked hard and spent a lot of money and time trying to make this work."

Postmedia columnist Keith Gerein framed the decision as a betrayal by Edmonton. "Make no mistake, regional trust has been seriously damaged with this decision, and I suspect it will take a long while for the group to find the confidence to resume serious work on big joint projects," he wrote.

That's not how Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi sees it. In a year-end interview with CTV, he said he remains committed to a "seamless, integrated regional transit system," but with a less expensive governance model. "Some of my colleagues in the region are upset. I acknowledge that," he said. "I will continue to work with them."

Coun. Anne Stevenson was similarly optimistic. "I'm really excited to continue collaborating with our regional partners, and I think we can come up with something that works really well, that's efficient for all of our communities," she told Speaking Municipally.