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.