Edmonton needs to keep pushing for LRT funding

With major funding announcements over the last few weeks for public transit in Toronto, Ottawa, and Calgary, many Edmontonians are wondering when our election handout will appear. Some are even suggesting that Edmonton is being shortchanged by the federal government when comparing previous funding commitments to the most recent ones. Mayor Iveson tweeted “no worries” and promised that City Council is “not done asking” for more LRT funding.

Einstein's Train
Photo by Mark Iocchelli

Let’s recap the funding announcements

The total cost of Stage 1 of the Valley Line LRT (Mill Woods to Downtown) is about $1.8 billion, with $800 million coming from the City, $600 million coming from the Province, and $400 million coming from the federal government.

The first federal contribution of $250 million from P3 Canada was made back in March 2013. Nearly a year later, the new Building Canada Fund was introduced which is expected to cover the additional $150 million needed from the federal government. Then in March 2014, the Province committed its $600 million contribution to the project. It consists of $250 million in GreenTRIP funding, $200 million in an interest-free loan, and $150 million to match the federal government’s Building Canada contribution.

In April 2015, the federal government unveiled its budget, called Economic Action Plan 2015. The budget included a new Public Transit Fund that would provide $750 million over two years starting in 2017-2018, and $1 billion annually thereafter.

“Large cities in Canada depend on public transit infrastructure to facilitate the mobility of people and goods and support economic development. Strong and efficient public transit networks help get people to their jobs, students to class and all citizens out in their community to see family and friends. Public transit also helps to reduce overall urban congestion, which helps to get goods to markets faster and supports productive and growing cities.”

Further details were released in June:

“In order to be eligible for support under the PTF, projects must have a minimum of $1 billion in total estimated eligible costs. Federal contributions under the fund will be up to one-third of the total eligible costs and will lever the expertise, ingenuity, and financing of the private sector and alternative funding mechanisms.”

They also announced that federal support provided through the P3 Canada Fund “will increase from 25 to 33.3 per cent of eligible project costs on a go forward basis.” This is why some feel that Edmonton is being shortchanged compared to other cities – the funding commitments we received were made before this change took place.

At the same time, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that the federal government would contribute one third of the costs of Toronto’s SmartTrack proposal, which equates to about $2.6 billion.

On July 22, the federal government announced a pledge of $1 billion from the new Public Transit Fund for Ottawa’s “Stage 2” plan. Like Edmonton’s plans, the $3 billion project anticipates each level of government covering a third of the cost.

And then most recently, on July 24, a $1.53 billion contribution to Calgary’s $4.6 billion Green Line LRT was announced, also from the new Public Transit Fund, and again covering one third of the total cost.

Public Transit Fund: strings attached

Canadians should be disappointed that it takes an election to prioritize funding for public transit. City Councils across the country have made it clear that public transit infrastructure is critical for dealing with growth and congestion. According to the Canadian Urban Transit Association, $3 of economic activity is generated for every $1 spent on transit. And they say that from 2006 to 2013, public transit ridership increased by 21% in Canada.

Are the Conservatives just trying to buy votes? “The sudden spending announcements across the country merely highlight the total inadequacy of funding for public projects in non-election years,” said Joel French, Director of Communications and Campaigns for Public Interest Alberta, in a statement yesterday. “Rather than reducing our cities to the role of simply hoping for electioneering handouts, we absolutely must fund our urban centres in ways that will allow them to meet the growing needs of city residents in a fair, just and sustainable manner.” Some say it’s this sporadic approach to funding public transit that has caused Canada to fall behind on public transit.

Another concern is that the Public Transit Fund is being administered by P3 Canada. That means that any public transit project funded through the program will need to be a P3, whether it suits the project and context or not. Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi has previously stated that “the real problem is that the only dedicated federal funding at this moment is through P3 Canada” and felt that a P3 didn’t make sense for Calgary’s transit expansion plans. Evidently that’s no longer the case.

And you can’t blame him – he’s going to take what he can get. Whether we like it or not, the Valley Line LRT extension here in Edmonton will be a P3 project because that’s the only way we could secure the required federal funding.

There’s a lot more LRT left to build

While the Public Transit Fund is a step in the right direction, it’s not the solution to Canada’s transit infrastructure needs. Cities across the country have plans for LRT that will require billions of dollars of investment and they need to be able to plan for that.

South Campus LRT
Photo by Mark Iocchelli

Here in Edmonton, the Valley Line LRT is just one part of the long-term LRT Network Plan which will require significant investment over the next 35 years. A full build-out is going to be required if our population forecasts prove to be accurate, with 2.2 million people living in the Edmonton region by 2044 and daily ridership of nearly 500,000 passengers.

I hope the federal government does top up its contributions to the Valley Line LRT, bringing their portion to the same one-third that other major cities are now getting. But even if they do, we’re not done. We need to keep pushing for stable LRT funding.

Maybe next time Elections Alberta can spend $1 million on something useful

Well there’s $1 million down the drain. Voter turnout for the 2015 provincial election here in Alberta ended up being 53.7%, down from 54.4% in 2012. The flashy ad campaign that Elections Alberta ran probably had very little impact on those numbers, if it had any impact at all. I’d wager than anger against the PCs and enchantment with the NDP’s orange crush did more to impact voter turnout than #ChooseYourAlberta did.

choose your alberta

They could have spent that money on things that would have actually, measurably impacted turnout. Like more voting stations. Or better educational resources on how to vote. Or online voting. Or, as I will argue for in this post, on a better website and on open data. Let’s start with the website.

Is a functional, reliable, up-to-date website too much to ask for in 2015?

The Elections Alberta website is an unmitigated disaster. It’s garish, uses tables for layout, and is horribly unfriendly to use on a mobile device. Worse, there’s not just one website, but many. Here are some of the subdomains I’ve come across:

There are probably others that I haven’t even found yet, too. Each of those sites has a different navigation menu even though they share a similar design, which makes them very disorienting. Worse, they change seemingly on a whim. Links are removed or change, redirects are put in place, and there is no revision history.

I suppose you could argue that we don’t have elections very often so it’s not worth putting a lot of money into the website. But I’m not talking about a fancy, complicated, expensive redesign. I’m talking about a simple, responsible, and trustworthy website that is actually useful.

I think being trustworthy is especially important. Elections Alberta is the authority on elections in Alberta – I would expect to be able to go their website to find accurate, reliable information. But it’s hard to trust a site that is constantly in flux, with information appearing for a few days and then disappearing again, or links that look like they were added almost as an afterthought.

For instance, I downloaded a list of candidates in the 2015 election in Excel format a few weeks before election day, as I was building my results dashboard. It was somewhere on the WTV site. Today that page is gone, and the WTV site redirects to results. Thanks to the Wayback Machine, I can see that a completely different site used to be there, with the link to the Excel document I had downloaded. Why remove that?

It seems they have removed nearly all of the previous information and functionality now that the election is over. Searching for your candidates has been replaced with finding your MLA. Which kind of makes sense, except that you’re on the Elections Alberta site, not the Legislative Assembly website. I expect to find election-related information at Elections Alberta, thank you very much!

A small fraction of the $1 million ad campaign budget would have gone a long way toward addressing these issues with the Elections Alberta website.

It’s time to get on board the open data bandwagon

I really like building things for elections. Whether it’s a results dashboard, a where-to-vote tool, a sign management system for a campaign, or something else entirely, I enjoy it all. These projects generally need data. Sometimes you crowdsource the data (where did volunteers drop all of the signs) but often you want official data from the election authority. In the case of the provincial election, I wanted to build a site that was useful before and after the election, with a where-to-vote feature, information on all of the candidates, and a results dashboard. I needed some data from Elections Alberta to make it happen. Here’s a rough overview of what I wanted:

  • A list of all parties (ideally with contact info)
  • A list of all candidates (ideally with contact info, their electoral district, etc.)
  • A list of all electoral districts (ideally with returning officers and other info)
  • A list of all polling stations (ideally with addresses and contact info)
  • The geographical boundary data for each electoral district
  • The geographical boundary data for each polling station
  • Results data for the 2015 election
  • Historical results data

Each of those datasets would allow me to build additional features, especially when combined with my own data. All of them are fairly straightforward in my opinion, and should be things that the authority on elections would have. Once I knew which datasets I needed, I set about finding them.

My first stop was the Alberta Open Data Portal: “The portal makes data the provincial government collects on behalf of citizens publicly available in machine readable formats with an open licence.” Like the City of Edmonton’s data catalogue, the Alberta Open Data Portal should be a one-stop shop for open data. But unfortunately, it contains no election-related data. I of course submitted a dataset request, but knew it wouldn’t be actioned in time. I still haven’t heard anything back about it.

I knew at this point that I’d have to hunt each dataset down individually, likely on the Elections Alberta site. And given what I wrote above about the website, I knew that was likely to be problematic.

As mentioned I found the list of candidates in Excel format. I also managed to find the electoral district boundary information and the polling station boundaries here. I ended up scraping nearly everything else, including the list of electoral districts. Just four days before the election, after repeated requests that went unanswered, they added an Excel document of all the polling stations (which you can see here via the Wayback Machine).

I’m pretty happy with the way the results dashboard turned out, but again it was all scraped. Instead if making a results feed available, or any kind of structured data, Elections Alberta only provides a static HTML page (which of course does not validate correctly making scraping even more difficult). Now that the election is over, I see they have added the resultsnew site, which appears to provide an option to download the results in Excel. Too little, too late.

One quick note on historical data. You can get PDFs here, but that’s pretty useless for anything other than manual lookups. I couldn’t find anything else. The only reason my results dashboard is able to show results data from 2012 is that I had saved copies of the static HTML results files that year.

This situation is untenable. Scraping data, hunting around a constantly changing website, and pleading for more complete datasets is not my idea of an open and accessible government. Open data is not a new concept, and the Province already has an open data catalogue. All Elections Alberta needs to do is make their data available inside of it.

There’s plenty of time to fix this before the next election!

I know that election time is crunch time, and that the folks at Elections Alberta were probably incredibly stressed out and constantly faced an uphill battle. And I know there are smart, dedicated Albertans who work there. Keila Johnston, Director of IT and Geomatics for Elections Alberta, was particularly helpful. But now the election is over, and I’d really like to see some positive change.

It would be an incredible shame if we got to the next election here in Alberta and found ourselves in the same position: with a website that’s out-of-date and unreliable, and a lack of open data to power new tools and experiences for voters. Elections Alberta has the talent and ability to fix both of those issues, if they prioritize it. And the best part? It shouldn’t cost $1 million to do so.

What does Alberta’s Budget 2015 mean for Edmonton?

Today was budget day in Alberta. Budget 2015 is being called “a bad news budget” but it could have been much worse. There are tax and user fee increases, cuts to spending (including the first cut to health spending in 20 years), and a new “Health Care Contribution Levy”, and still Alberta’s deficit will grow, to a record $5 billion this year. On the other hand, infrastructure spending seems to be mostly intact, programs for the most vulnerable have not been cut, Alberta retains its tax advantage, and the Province is taking some baby steps toward getting us off the energy price roller coaster. Here is Dave’s take.

Budget 2015

There’s a lot of truth to the “government town” label that people often apply to Edmonton, so any Provincial cuts are going to have an impact. According to the City’s chief economist John Rose, 22% of Edmonton’s employment is related to health care, education, or public administration.

Still, Rose said in recent weeks that Edmonton as a whole would weather the storm better than others in Alberta. From his Labour Force Report issued on March 13:

“Although the impact of lower oil prices is evident in some sectors, the diversity and depth of
Edmonton’s economy has insured that employment continues to grow in Edmonton and that the
City remains a very attractive location for those seeking new opportunities.”

So what does Budget 2015 mean for Edmontonians and for Edmonton?

Highlights

Here are some of the key takeaways from the budget that I think are relevant to Edmonton:

  • For 2015-2016, Alberta Health Services (AHS) faces a decrease of $286 million or 2.1% and will need to cut nearly 1,700 positions
  • The budget includes $926 million in capital spending for health-related “capacity expansion projects” in Calgary and Edmonton
  • There is $50 million over at least two years to renovate emergency rooms in Calgary and Edmonton (specifically the Misericordia, Grey Nuns, and Royal Alexandra hospitals)
  • The budget promises than 300 new restorative care beds in Calgary and Edmonton
  • Post-secondary institutions face $114 million in cuts
  • Campus Alberta institutions (which includes the University of Alberta) are facing a 1.4% operating grant reduction in 2015-2016 and a 2.7% reduction in 2016-2017
  • School boards will receive no money for more students and must cut 3% from non-instructional costs
  • The Province says that “most” school projects announced in 2013 and early 2014 will open in 2016-2017
  • Family and Community Support Services, which helps to fund more than 60 agencies and 80 programs in Edmonton, will be maintained at $76 million.
  • Funding for police remains the same
  • Capital spending of $1.1 billion for the next 5 years includes $124 million for NAIT expansion and $120 million for NorQuest downtown
  • GreenTRIP funding remains intact, which means the first portion of the Valley Line LRT will continue to move ahead
  • MSI funding will remain stable, even if it is more of a loan than a grant
  • The smart fare proposal from Edmonton, St. Albert, and Strathcona County is still “under consideration”
  • The budget contains no funding for the proposed Galleria project

Discussion

Certainly the health care sector is going to take a hit and that will have some impact on Edmonton. The Province maintains that we can get the same quality of service for less, while critics disagree and suggest the effect of this budget won’t be felt only by those at AHS who lose their jobs but also by Edmontonians in need of care. “The time has come for us to start looking at how we can do things in a more efficient manner,” said Health Minister Stephen Mandel. “I don’t think Albertans should have to pay 20 and 30 per cent more for things.”

In addition to the cuts in health-related spending, the budget also introduces the Health Care Contribution Levy, which will apply to individuals with taxable income greater than $50,000 per year. There’s a sliding scale from $200 to $1000 depending on your income bracket. This tax takes effect on July 1, 2015, and applies to roughly 1.1 million Albertans.

The health-related surprise though was money for hospitals, especially given recent suggestions that Edmonton facilities need more than $225 million in maintenance and repairs. The previously announced funding for emergency room upgrades will help in that regard.

It’s not clear how many cuts the education sector will face, but clearly the 3% reduction is going to have an impact. A lack of new funds to deal with growth will likely also mean larger class sizes. At the post-secondary level the cuts are much smaller than many expected.

While there is no provincial sales tax, there are increases to personal income taxes. If you make more than $100,000 per year your tax rate will increase from 10% to 11.5% (phased in over three years) and if you earn more than $250,000 your tax rate will rise to 12% when fully implemented (Edmonton’s media family income is about $100,000). We know that nearly 10,000 employees of AHS earn at least $100,000 a year, which means if they aren’t among the job cuts, they will face increased personal income tax. Though it likely won’t be those who make the most that face the cuts. According to the Herald, Mandel’s own department will spend 18% more than last year.

For most Edmontonians, increased taxes, fines, and user fees will be felt immediately. Gas taxes are increasing by 4 cents to 13 cents per litre. Cigarette taxes are increasing by $5 to $45 for a carton of 200. A bottle of wine or spirits will cost 16 cents more, and a 12-pack of beer will cost 90 cents more. Fines for speeding and other traffic offences are increasing by an average of 35%. Marriage licenses are increasing by $10 as are birth and death certificates.

There is some good news for the most vulnerable Edmontonians. There will be no reductions to child care subsidies for low-income families, nor are there any reductions to the Alberta Seniors Benefit income support. The budget will also accommodate growth for AISH and Persons with Development Disabilities. Starting July 1, 2016 there will also be a new Alberta Working Family Supplement refundable tax credit on earnings up to $41,220. Funding for FCSS, which supports many Edmonton agencies, will be maintained.

On infrastructure there’s mostly good news. Or at least a sigh of relief that important projects will continue moving forward, like the Valley Line LRT which the Province previously committed to.

Responses to Budget 2015

From Mayor Don Iveson:

“The city of Edmonton and Alberta municipalities faired reasonably well on this budget, all things considered – certainly compared to what we all heard and were concerned might be coming,” Iveson said.

“The numbers are fairly small and speaking to our chief economist just now, it may have a small effect on Edmonton’s growth, but we’re talking a decimal to Edmonton’s GDP, not a side-swipe,” Iveson said.

“We can work with the dollars provided,” said Iveson.

From Doug Goss, char of the University of Alberta’s board of governors:

“The message is clear — we all have to find new ways of doing business, we have to be a little more creative,” said Goss.

From Indira Samarasekera, President of the University of Alberta:

“This is a very good outcome,” said Samarasekera, “much better than many were expecting. The provincial government is facing financial pressures, but they’ve demonstrated they understand the importance of post-secondary to Alberta’s future.”

President Samarasekera will address the campus community at a forum on March 31.

From Michael Janz, Edmonton Public School Board chair:

“We’re going to see more students arriving at the school doorsteps with no new money provided to educate them,” he said. “I don’t think this is a good news budget for Edmonton public schools.”

From Marilyn Bergstra, vice-chair of Edmonton Catholic Schools:

“The budget cuts will make it increasingly difficult to support all of our students, particularly our most vulnerable, as well as the new students that are coming to our district,” she said.

From Helen Rice, President of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA):

“Sufficient funding for infrastructure is vital to address the deficit that has continued to grow across the province, and to provide for new infrastructure requirements to meet our obligations to citizens,” said Rice.

“Given the current economic climate, now is the time to secure funding to meet infrastructure needs when prices are falling and the availability of resources to work on projects is increasing,” said Rice.

The reaction from the business community appears to be more mixed.

Budget 2015

Budget 2015 Details

Here are all the budget-related news releases:

Here is the budget presentation from Robin Campbell, Minister of Finance:

You can also download the budget speech in PDF here. You can access the full list of budget documents here.

Roundup: Pre-Election Politics in Alberta

As you know I stay fairly focused on municipal issues, especially as they relate to Edmonton. But with the provincial budget set to be released on Thursday, a televised address from the Premier tonight, the review of the Municipal Government Act, and expectations of an imminent election, I’ve been thinking more about provincial politics lately. Here’s a brief summary and some thoughts on what I’ve been paying attention to.

Premier Prentice’s TV Address

Tonight, Premier Jim Prentice delivered a 16 minute address called Alberta Looks Ahead on CTV (which apparently cost between $80K and $100K). “We are a turning point in our province,” he said at the beginning. He described the need for “thoughtful decisions for the future” and said Albertans have told him they want balance.

The highlights as I understood them:

  • A 10 year plan will be introduced with the budget, with three pillars: strong fiscal foundation, building a lasting legacy, securing Alberta’s future
  • There will be no sales tax and Alberta will retain “the most competitive tax system in Canada”
  • The goal is to be back to a balanced budget by 2017
  • The government will hold the line on expenditures, which essentially means cuts in a growing province
  • Albertans will be asked “to contribute to the costs of the health system”, slowly at first but growing over time
  • By 2018-2019, 75% of energy revenue will go to program spending
  • By 2019-2020, 50% of energy revenue will go to program spending, with 25% going to emergency funds and paying down the debt and 25% going to the Heritage Savings Trust Fund

The Premier talked a lot about how he is determined to restore our commitment to the Heritage Fund, and said “paying off our debts is something we simply must do.” If I remember correctly, he mentioned only two former Premiers by name: Peter Lougheed and Ralph Klein.

Perhaps this is a more accurate, succinct recap courtesy of Marty Chan:

There were no “look in the mirror” comments tonight, but I did love the soundbite toward the end when Premier Prentice spoke about “a spirit of openness across every segment of Alberta”. He offered some examples, including “from bloggers to loggers,” which led to this gem:

Dave is probably the most well-known political blogger in the province. You can see his latest nomination update post here.

The Premier is also planning to host a series of Telephone Town Halls along with various Ministers, on March 25 and March 30. You can dial in toll-free at 1-855-269-4484. Tonight I saw many complaints about robocalls, so it’ll be interesting to see how those town halls are received.

Budget 2015 Consultations

The Province conducted an online survey for Budget 2015 and in total received 40,513 responses. The survey was open from February 5-28. Some of the key findings include:

  • 9 out of 10 respondents feel low oil prices will greatly or somewhat affect the Alberta government’s ability to budget
  • when asked what is the right balance to respond to the drop in revenue, Albertans were split almost evenly 3 ways between reducing spending, increasing revenue and running a deficit budget
  • 9 out of 10 respondents feel government needs to take action either immediately or within this year

I’m not sure how representative the results are, but it’s useful data to consider nonetheless. Budget 2015 will be released on Thursday, March 26.

Perhaps most interesting to me is that the survey results were made available through the Open Data Portal! This enables you to ask the hard questions, like: how long did the average person take to fill out the survey? The average length of time was 7 minutes, with the median at 11 minutes. Ignoring the records that were greater than 90 minutes (people leave tabs open all the time) here’s what the data looks like in a chart:

budget survey time taken

You can download all the data as a 13 MB Excel file. Give it a go and have some fun!

I hope this is a sign of things to come in terms of making information available through the open data catalogue in a timely fashion.

Municipal Government Act Amendments

Last week, the Government of Alberta tabled amendments to the Municipal Government Act. You can get a brief overview of what’s changing here. From the news release:

“The last major consolidation of the MGA took place in 1995, after nearly 10 years of review. The current MGA review began in 2012 and has involved input from more than 1,200 written submissions, and more than 1,500 people at 77 community meetings.”

A few of the proposed changes I found interesting:

  • Municipalities would be required to adopt public participation policies that outline their approaches for engaging with stakeholders. Edmonton already has a policy for this and is actively review and improving its approach to public engagement.
  • Existing petition requirements make it difficult to successfully petition a municipality, so one proposed changed would allow municipalities to change the rules for petitions.
  • Currently municipalities need to use snail mail or newspapers to notify the public about things like bylaws and public hearings, but this is 2015! The proposed change would make it possible for municipalities to announce notifications online or using other methods as they see fit.
  • Another change would require municipalities to adopt three-year operating plans and five-year capital plans. Edmonton is already moving in this direction.
  • Municipalities are currently required to have statutory plans, but there is no explicit hierarchy specified, they simply need to be consistent with one another. The proposed change is to identify the hierarchy and relationship of those plans. In Edmonton, this could impact The Way Ahead.
  • Another change would allow for the creation of civic charters, which the Province, Edmonton, and Calgary have already been pursuing.

There are more amendments still to come. Additional review and consultation will take place this spring with the goal of proclaiming the fully revised MGA and regulatory updates by the end of 2016.

MSI Funding (March 2015)

Another pre-election, pre-budget announcement was about the allocation of $400 million in MSI funding. Edmonton is slated to receive just over $80 million out of that, which is less than half of what the City was expecting for 2015.

“Until we get the provincial budget, I won’t know how much additional dollars are available and we won’t be able to make any decisions about which projects go ahead until we see the provincial budget,” said Mayor Don Iveson.

For its part, the Liberals have called the MSI announcement “an elaborate ruse” due to some creative accounting with the Basic Municipal Transportation Grant.

Wildrose Leadership Race

Also tonight, we held our third #abvote Hangout at http://abvote.ca. In addition to Dave, Ryan, and myself, we had the three Wildrose leadership candidates join us: Drew Barnes (MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat), Derek Fildebrandt sitting in for Brian Jean (Former MP for Fort McMurray - Athabasca) and Linda Osinchuk (Former Mayor for Strathcona County). We started with a discussion about the Premier’s address, and then moved on to some other questions for the candidates.

You can watch the archived video on YouTube or here:

I asked a question about how they’d support municipalities, and of course the Wildrose 10/10 plan came up, which would allocate 10% of tax revenues and 10% of surpluses to municipalities.

They’re rushing this race, but with speculation the writ will drop on March 30, they don’t have much of a choice. You can learn more about how voting works for the leadership race here. The Wildrose party will announce its next leader on March 28 in Calgary.

Other

I have already mentioned these things in previous roundups but it’s worth linking to them again:

That’s it for now! Stay tuned for our next Hangout and follow all the latest stuff online using #ableg and #abvote. Now I guess I had better go update the Election Results dashboard

17 reasons why City Council deserves the 3.8% raise

City Council will receive a 3.81% salary increase in 2015, which would make the mayor’s salary $176,145 and the councillors’ salary $99,994. That’s an increase over their 2014 salaries of $6,464 and $3,671, respectively. As one third of that is tax exempt, the fully taxable equivalent salary is $213,272 for the mayor and $118,824 for the councillors. At the end of the day, we’re talking about another $50,516 per year to pay for all the increases. It’s not a large amount, and I think it’s fair.

City Council Swearing In 2013-2017

Here are 17 reasons why Council deserves the proposed raise, in no particular order:

  1. Under our current twelve ward system, Councillors represent between 60,000 and 95,000 Edmontonians each. And our city is one of the fastest growing in the country, so that number is only going up!
  2. Council’s compensation is calculated in an open and transparent way using the percentage change in the 12 month average of the Alberta Weekly Earnings values as reported by Statistics Canada.
  3. Just counting Council & Committee meetings and public hearings, Council met 115 times in 2014. Those meetings included a combined 3,825 agenda items. Many of those included multi-page reports. That’s a lot of reading!
  4. Unlike other levels of government, Councillors do not vote on their own pay raises. It’s done automatically through an independent system that was established in 2011 by bylaw 15969.
  5. An increase of 3.8% is nothing compared with historical increases! Before the current system was implemented, aldermen awarded themselves large increases. In 1972 aldermen gave themselves a 26% increase, and in 1977, immediately after the election, aldermen tried to increase their salaries by 60%! In 1989, aldermen approved a 51% increase over three years.
  6. Supported by Council, our mayor stood up in front of a room full of business people and said that while attempting to eliminate poverty is a complex challenge, he is is unafraid to tackle it. This Council believes in the importance of representing and improving the lives of all Edmontonians.
  7. Councillors work long hours, way more than 40 per week in most instances. Just look at the last week – they had a marathon discussion about Uber and taxis that went to nearly 10pm, and they extended the January 26 Public Hearing twice in order to give everything the time it deserved. On top of that they regularly attend community events throughout the week and on weekends. A busy week could easily exceed 60 hours.
  8. Councillor Gibbons estimated back in 2012 that the proposed 5.35% increase that year worked out to an extra $2 per hour based on the number of hours he puts in.
  9. Many members of Council choose to direct portions of their salary or their eligible increases to worthy causes. For instance, in 2011, 2012, and 2013 Councillor Iveson donated $2,505 of his salary to the Donate-a-Ride program. Sometimes members of Council simply decline an increase. For instance, Mayor Mandel froze his salary for three years until his final year in office.
  10. They are working hard to develop a “true partnership” with the Province that will result in the long-term sustainability of our city. They are renewing neighbourhoods now and building up a fund to pay for maintenance in the future. They’re concerned with Edmonton’s future, not just its present.
  11. A study on the perception of Council’s compensation in 2012 (pdf) found that the annual salaries for comparable positions for the mayor and councillors align well with the actual salaries they receive.
  12. One comparison to another leader in our community: outgoing University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera earned a salary of $544,000 last year. Another comparison: more than 3,100 Alberta government employees earned over $100,000 a year in 2012 and 2013.
  13. Unpopular as the idea may sound, research suggests that higher wages attract better quality politicians and improve political performance. This was the argument made in Boston recently too when Councillors there debated giving themselves a 29% raise.
  14. Council is committed to building our city’s infrastructure, and they’re getting results, securing funding for the Valley Line LRT extension as an example.
  15. If rising costs are your concern, there are far more expensive things to be concerned about. Here are 99 stupid things the government spent your money on. At #53: “The City of Edmonton spent $500,000 on licences for software that an auditor said hardly any employees ever use.” Back in 2008, the City spent $92 million on consultants.
  16. After taking into account the difference in tax exemptions, our mayor and councillors make roughly the same amount as their counterparts in Calgary.
  17. Every year, no matter what they do, Councillors have to deal with hundreds if not thousands of complaints about snow removal, potholes, and other hot topics. Not to mention hearing constant NIMBYism and receiving all kinds of criticism as they try to make positive change for now and the future. It really is a thankless job at times.

I’m sure you can think of many other reasons – what are yours?

Yes, improvements could be made. I’d like to see the salaries stated in terms of the fully taxable equivalent for instance, rather than having to explain that 1/3 is tax exempt. Still, I think it’s crazy how upset some citizens get whenever the topic of salary increases for City Council comes up. There’s no shortage of other more important issues to discuss.

Edmonton’s Valley Line LRT moves forward with commitment from the Province

It was the announcement Edmonton was hoping for last Thursday when the Province unveiled its Budget 2014: money for southeast LRT extension to Mill Woods.

Valley Line LRT Funding Announcement

Edmonton’s Valley Line LRT is moving forward after the Province today made a commitment to provide up to $600 million to help finance the project. In a prepared statement, Premier Alison Redford said:

“Alberta is preparing to welcome a million new residents over the next decade, many of whom will be choosing communities like Edmonton as their home. Our Building Alberta Plan is helping municipalities build public transit systems to accommodate growth and make it easier for Albertans of all ages and levels of mobility to get where they need to go.”

In stark contrast to his disappointment last Thursday, Mayor Don Iveson was understandably pleased with today’s result, calling it “a momentous occasion”:

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Today’s announcement was a bit over-the-top in my opinion, with Premier Redford, cabinet ministers, and MLAs arriving at Churchill Station via LRT. I think Mayor Iveson picked up on the pomp as well, joking that he hoped the ministers enjoyed their trip on the LRT.

Valley Line LRT Funding Announcement

It was a good opportunity for Edmontonians to show support for LRT expansion however, with students from City Hall School holding up #yeg4lrt signs at the top of the escalator. There was a sizable crowd gathered and lots and lots of media on hand to capture the event. If you’d like to watch the announcement, you can see the raw footage here.

What the Province has committed to is:

  • up to $250 million under GreenTRIP over three years beginning in 2016-17 upon approval under the second call for GreenTRIP projects,
  • up to $150 million in matching provincial funding if the federal government approves this project under the new Building Canada Fund beginning in 2016-17, and
  • up to $200 million in an interest-free loan to be repaid by the city over 10 years, fully backed by the Alberta Capital Finance Authority (ACFA).

As Mayor Iveson noted today, only $400 million of that is new money. The interest-free $200 million loan is simply a creative way to bridge the gap.

Valley Line LRT Funding Announcement

It is unusual though not unprecedented for the Province to offer interest-free loans to municipalities through the Alberta Capital Finance Authority (ACFA). For instance, a program known as “ME first!” launched in September 2003 and provided interest-free loans to encourage municipalities to achieve energy savings in their operations. It is common for the City to receive loans from ACFA for infrastructure projects, with typical interest rates ranging from 1.6% to 3.3%. Some projects that the City has previously borrowed for include the Whitemud Drive/Quesnell Bridge rehabilitation, the Walter Bridge replacement, and the NAIT LRT line. Any loans would be subject to the Municipal Government Act, which outlines debt limits and other restrictions. Edmonton is well within both the provincial debt limit and its own more strict limits.

Technically the money won’t start flowing until 2016, which perhaps not coincidentally happens to be the pre-election budget. It certainly did feel like a politically motivated announcement today. The Province received immense pressure from Edmontonians after last week’s budget and Mayor Iveson and his colleagues on Council did a good job of harnessing that to their advantage (the mayor even played along with the #SadDonIveson meme).

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As Dave noted today:

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Still, the assurance from the Province means that the City can keep the project moving forward, and that’s a win for Edmonton. We won’t lose a construction season, and the federal funding will likely be received without issue. Mayor Iveson confirmed:

“Knowing that we have a clear pathway to apply for those dollars allows City Council to consider moving ahead to the next step of this journey.”

The mayor thanked Council, our regional neighbours, and the ministers at the Province for working hard to get the deal done.

Valley Line LRT Funding Announcement

I know many people have been working on this for a long time, but I think Mayor Iveson deserves a lot of credit for making this happen. He expressed disappointment and frustration last week, but did not alienate the cabinet ministers he needed to work with to move things forward. He kept the lines of communication open, and clearly said the right things.

Today’s news, while positive for the Valley Line LRT, is not the long-term commitment that the mayor has been seeking, but it is another step in the right direction.

Valley Line LRT

Here’s a look at what the Valley Line LRT will look like from Mill Woods to 102 Avenue downtown (subject to change):

The City’s website has already been updated with details related to the funding:

“Thanks in part to timely commitments by our provincial and federal partners, the Valley Line will remain on schedule for a construction start of 2016, aiming to be open to the public by the end of 2020.”

The next step is a Request for Proposals to shortlist qualified consortia (groups of affiliated companies) that bid on the project. That stage is expected to take three months.

Keep up-to-date on the Valley Line LRT here or sign up for email updates.

Province to Edmonton’s City Council: “You’ll like the 2014 budget…just kidding!”

Things were looking up for LRT expansion in Edmonton. As recently as a few weeks ago, Mayor Iveson sounded optimistic that the Province was going to provide money for LRT. Other members of City Council had also received positive indications from the Province. But talk is cheap, and the Province didn’t follow through with today’s budget, as Mayor Iveson made clear:

“Not in a position to celebrate anything today at this point. Little bit of disappointment that yesterday’s message and really the message our Council has been consistent about since last year hasn’t quite gotten through yet.”

The Province unveiled its 2014 Budget this afternoon, saying it “delivers the core services Albertans expect, makes strategic investments in innovation to improve the lives of Albertans today and into the future, and strengthens new and existing infrastructure to address the demands of our growing province and economy.” Unfortunately, LRT was not deemed a priority as evidenced by the complete lack of commitment to funding its ongoing expansion in Edmonton and Calgary.

The original GreenTRIP fund of $2 billion, created by the Stelmach government in 2008, has not been increased. MSI funding increased slightly, but not nearly enough to fund the LRT expansion to Mill Woods. Besides, as Mayor Iveson again pointed out today, Edmonton has a need for LRT funding on top of all the things that MSI funding is used for in other municipalities – building libraries, recreation centres, etc. The lack of increase in GreenTRIP funding was especially disappointing to the mayor:

“My interpretation of long-term commitment to GreenTRIP isn’t just saying we’re going to roll out all the money we announced serveral years ago by 2019 and announce this year’s money like its new when its actually money that we’re putting into the NAIT line today because its money that was announced previously.”

He clarified yet again what a long-term commitment would look like:

“For me, a long-term commitment to transit would be an open-ended or ten year commitment to sustained levels of funding for rapid transit expansion in our province.”

The reaction from local leaders was disappointment, as expected. “There’s no new commitment to transit here,” Mayor Iveson said.

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There are two key risks the City faces by not receiving funding for LRT expansion from the Province. The first risk is that we miss yet another construction season, which could add around $65 million to the total cost of the project. The City has a deadline of April 30 to try to get all of the necessary funding in place. If that date isn’t met, then the completion of the Southeast LRT expansion by 2019 is in jeopardy.

The second risk is that the federal funding Edmonton has applied for under the P3 Canada program could be at risk if construction doesn’t begin by the end of 2015. “There is a timeline on the P3 grant,” Mayor Iveson said. “If we were to lose another year, then we would potentially begin to lose some of the federal funding, and then we’d really lose momentum.”

Mayor Don Iveson

But the biggest issue here is that the Province made noise about a long-term commitment to LRT, and simply hasn’t delivered. Mayor Iveson expressed his frustration with this:

“Frankly I received a lot of mixed messages from the Province over the last six to eight weeks, that we’d be happy, that we should manage our expectations, that we’d be satisfied, that we’re asking for too much, and often from the same people, so that is a frustration.”

Still he tried to remain optimistic, adding, “that just tells me that things are fluid still.”

You can listen to Mayor Iveson’s full remarks here:

If there wasn’t already a trust issue between City Council and the Province, there most certainly is now. Conversations can only be considered productive if they actually lead to an outcome that all sides are happy with. If the Province wasn’t prepared to make a commitment now, they should have made that clear to the mayor and the rest of Council.

Asked what he thought about his first provincial budget experience since taking office, Mayor Iveson sighed audibly. “That’s what I think,” he said. Ever the optimist, he said he remained dedicated to working with the Province to find a positive outcome for the city. “I think they’ve figured out in the last 24 hours that we really mean it, this is really important to us.”

You can read more about the Province’s Budget 2014 here.

A vision for the future of transportation in Alberta

The Province is currently working on a new long-term transportation strategy for Alberta. Over the last two months, public discussions have been held throughout Alberta and in the spring, an online survey will be released.

“This Strategy – which will focus on all forms of transportation, connections and ways to move people and products – provide an overarching vision for Alberta’s transportation system over the next 50 years. It will also help guide government decisions on transportation investments, policies and programs.”

That’s a big challenge. But it’s exciting to consider!

Since I missed the meeting here in Edmonton, I took a look at the feedback form. It includes a number of questions that aim to capture what the public thinks about the strategy. One of the first deals with the proposed vision for the Transportation Strategy for Alberta:

“A world-class transportation system that is safe, sustainable and innovative, and that supports Alberta’s economy and quality of life.”

I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that, but it just seems rather bland, doesn’t it? It’s very expected. And phrases like “world-class” are just meaningless. The proposed vision is also incredibly similar to others. For instance, here is Transport Canada’s vision:

“A transportation system in Canada that is recognized worldwide as safe and secure, efficient and environmentally responsible.”

Needless to say, I’m not a fan of the proposed vision. It doesn’t tell me anything about what transportation in Alberta will look like in the future, especially as you could credibly argue that it reflects the current state of Alberta’s transportation system.

welcome to alberta
Welcome to Alberta by Magalie

What could it be instead? Well let’s consider the context.

The shift from rural to urban has been dramatic in Alberta. According to the 2011 federal census, more than 56% of Albertans now live in population centres larger than 100,000 people in size, and 83% live in urban areas of any size (compared to 81% nationally). We’re an urban province now more than ever. The economic power of cities cannot be ignored.

We know that vehicles are dangerous. According to the World Health Organization, “road traffic injuries are the eighth leading cause of death globally, and the leading cause of death for young people aged 15-29.” Here in Alberta, traffic fatalities have declined significantly from 2007 through 2011, but there are still too many of them. We also know that vehicles have a negative impact on the environment. They contribute to global warming, they contribute to smog, and they take up an incredible amount of land that could otherwise be used more productively.

There are lots of other factors to consider, but I think these are the two most important. Reducing our dependence on vehicles and recognizing the importance of cities should be central any vision of the future of transportation in our province. Unsurprisingly, the two biggest cities in Alberta have already recognized this.

Our neighbours to the south have the Calgary Transportation Plan, which says:

The decisions made today about where and what to build will affect Calgarians for 100 years or more – just as decisions made in the past affect us today. Going forward, the transportation system must perform a wide variety of roles and consider the context of surrounding land uses, be they natural or manufactured. It must provide more choice for Calgarians – realistic choices that are convenient, affordable and attractive. These choices include walking, cycling, transit, high occupancy vehicles (HOV or carpooling) and single-occupant vehicles (SOV).

Here in Edmonton, we have the Transportation Master Plan, The Way We Move. It is even more aggressive:

We are building a 21st century city, shaping an Edmonton that will meet the needs of our diverse and growing urban and regional population. Growing environmental concerns, acknowledgment of the ongoing investment needed to maintain our transportation infrastructure and the rapid growth of our city demand a shift in transportation priority setting. It is a shift from single passenger vehicle use to more public transit; from building outward to a compact urban form. From an auto oriented view of transportation to a more holistic view of an interconnected, multi-modal transportation system where citizens can walk, bike, bus and train efficiently and conveniently to their desired location.

I recognize that Calgary and Edmonton have a completely different context and set of challenges than the rest of the province does, but I think their transportation strategies are informative. Let me also say that I don’t think creating a vision statement is easy. I know a lot of hard work, thought, and difficult discussions are needed to come up with them. That said, I’ll take a stab at it.

Here’s my attempt at crafting a stronger vision for the future of transportation in Alberta:

An innovative and sustainable transportation system that emphasizes high occupancy vehicles and strengthens the global competitiveness of Alberta’s urban areas.

What do you think?

Another small step forward for Edmonton’s Southeast LRT extension

Prime Minister Stephen Harper today introduced the new Building Canada Plan, “the largest long-term infrastructure plan in Canadian history, providing stable funding for a 10-year period.” The highlight of the new plan is the $14 billion New Building Canada Fund, a potential source of funding for projects like Edmonton’s planned Southeast LRT extension.

valley line lrt

Known as the Valley Line, the Southeast to West LRT extension would run 27 km from Mill Woods to Lewis Farms. The City hopes to construct the expansion in phases, starting with a $1.8 billion leg from Mill Woods Town Centre to 102 Street downtown. The City has already committed $800 million to the project, and now needs the federal and provincial governments to contribute their share.

Despite some opposition, City Council approved the use of a public-private partnership to build the extension, enabling the City to access funding through P3 Canada. In March last year, P3 Canada awarded $250 million toward the project.

Mayor Don Iveson

Though many details about the new Building Canada Fund are still to come, Mayor Don Iveson held a press conference this afternoon to discuss how it might help the City with the LRT expansion. In the ideal case, the City would receive another $150 million for the project, taking the total federal contribution to $400 million. Mayor Iveson said:

“That shows the federal government is seriously committed to investing in transit, maybe to not the level that mayors across the country would like, but it’s an opening to further discussion about the importance of national investment in transit infrastructure.”

Though he praised the efforts of the federal government, he also shared his thoughts on what he’d like to see in the future:

“Long-term, I would like to see a dedicated federal investment in rapid transit, over and above these baseline Building Canada commitments.”

Here’s the audio from Mayor Iveson’s press conference today:

If the City were to receive the funding it hopes to from Building Canada, that would bring the funding gap down to $365 million (the City has $235 million left over from Stelmach’s fund for green transit that mostly went to the North LRT to NAIT). The Government of Alberta needs to come to the table, and Mayor Iveson sounded optimistic that could happen:

“We’ll keep on talking to ministers and MLAs and we’ve been having a lot of those conversations lately and they’re very receptive. They’re working within their own constraints, and their own competing priorities, but I believe they’re trying to find a way.”

I’m much less optimistic. Both Calgary and Edmonton have made it clear that rapid transit is their top priority, but Premier Alison Redford’s government has consistently avoided making any commitments. Sooner or later, the province is going to have to either come to the table on LRT funding, or as David Staples wrote last month, “we need to elect a government that can make it happen.”

If the funding were secured by the spring, construction on the Southeast LRT could begin as early as 2016 with the extension opening by 2020.