Western Canada: Alberta faces off against Edmonton and Calgary over transit funding

Hello everyone, Mark Iype in Edmonton today.

It was another interesting week in Alberta politics, as the province and its two largest cities (this time) faced the challenge of transit funding. But the question of who knew what and when still hangs around.

It all started Tuesday, when it was announced that the Alberta government would no longer fund pilot projects in Edmonton and Calgary that helped subsidize transit passes for low-income residents. Since 2017, the province has given each of the cities $4.5 million for their respective programs, with bumps in the past year as the much-needed service was used by more and more people. (More than 100,000 registered in each city)

Although the cuts were not officially announced by the province, mayors were quick to speak out about the hardships it would cause for some of their most vulnerable residents.

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek called it an “absolute cruelty to low-income Calgarians” who rely on discounted transit passes to get to work, school and medical appointments. Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi echoed that sentiment, calling it an “attack on local democracy.”

While the county and cities have grappled with a variety of issues in recent months, including homelessness, public safety and housing, there was no indication that low-income transit passes would be on the chopping block. Premier Danielle Smith’s government said in February 2023 that supporting these programs would make life more affordable for Albertans struggling to “heat their homes and feed their families.”

When The Globe and Mail asked Jason Nixon, the Minister of Seniors, Community and Social Services, on Tuesday why the cuts were being made, his press secretary, Alexandru Cioban, said in a statement that public transportation is a municipal responsibility and that the province should be more invests. in “core services” such as homelessness and housing.

But about twelve hours later, after public outcry and some unfavorable media reporting from sources often friendly to the government, the decision was reversed.

At a news conference Wednesday, Nixon said he was unaware of the decision to cut millions in funding and that it was department bureaucrats who put the programs on the financial chopping block because they are considered pilot projects.

It remains unclear why his office issued a statement seemingly justifying the decision when the minister was unaware of the cuts.

Nixon said he spoke directly to the mayors after understanding what was going on before reversing the decision.

“We were able to get feedback on the impact that decision would have on the cities and on that program, and we were able to make some adjustments. We will have to look elsewhere within our budget to meet our targets,” the minister said, adding that it was clear neither city would be able to cover the full cost of the programs.

Gondek and Sohi were happy that funding was restored, even though there were still questions about how it happened.

“You can look at this in two ways. One is that a mistake has been corrected and the other is that now they have changed their minds,” Gondek told reporters.

This is Western Canada’s weekly newsletter, written by BC Editor Wendy Cox and the Alberta bureau chief Mark Iype. If you are reading this on the Internet, or if it was forwarded to you by someone else, please sign up for this and all Globe newsletters. here.