Province cuts funding from low-income transit passes in Calgary and Edmonton

If the program is cut, it could dramatically increase the amount low-income Calgarians pay for transit fares. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)
If the program is cut, it could dramatically increase the amount low-income Calgarians pay for transit fares. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)

UPDATE (May 1, 2024) - The provincial government reversed its decision to cut funding for low-income transit passes in Calgary and Edmonton one day after the mayors of those cities learned of the move. That story is here.

The mayors of Alberta's two largest cities are denouncing an Alberta government decision to cut funding for low-income transit passes in Calgary and Edmonton, putting the program in jeopardy in both cities.

Calgary received $6.2 million from the province last year for the program, which allows low-income Calgarians to buy monthly transit passes at a reduced rate, on a sliding scale based on household income.

In the first three months of this year, 119,000 people qualified for the program. That's up 35 per cent from the same period last year.

The item was added to the Calgary city council's closed agenda on Tuesday morning.

"I have been informed the Government of Alberta is slashing funding for the low-income transit pass in the midst of an affordability crisis, and I am appalled," read a statement from Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek issued Tuesday afternoon.

"It is an insult to the lowest income Calgarians who are already struggling to get by. This provincial government continues to burden big cities by walking away from their commitments."

In a later interview with CBC, Gondek said the city doesn't plan to end the program immediately, but that it will need to make up the shortfall somehow.

If the program is cut, it could dramatically increase the amount low-income Calgarians pay for transit fares.

In an e-mailed statement, Alexandru Cioban, a spokesperson for the minister of seniors, community and social services, did not directly address concerns from Alberta's big city mayors.

Instead, he pointed to other transit investments the province is making.

"Alberta's government is investing $5 million to support transportation programs for low-income Albertans in rural communities where transportation options are limited," he said.

"Alberta's government also provides over $3.5 million to low-income Albertans on social benefits to support them getting transportation across the province, including in Edmonton and Calgary."

He added: "As transit is a municipal responsibility in the two big cities, we are investing more in core services delivered by the province like homelessness and housing."

Currently, the three monthly transit pass categories that low-income Calgarians can apply for:

  • Band A — $5.80 per month.

  • Band B —  $40.25 per month.

  • Band C —  $57.50 per month.

A regular adult monthly transit pass in Calgary costs $115.

The City of Calgary has annually received provincial grants of $4.5 million to support the program. In 2023, it received an additional $1.7 million to extend the seniors low-income monthly pass rate to include those seniors living in multigenerational households, at the province's request.

"We are already funding this [low-income transit passes] to the tune of about 83 per cent, so we're OK for a little while," Gondek told reporters.

"We're not going to be OK for the entire year. So this government has an opportunity to step up and do the right thing and make sure they reinstate that funding. They have a responsibility to do this for low-income Calgarians."

Meaghon Reid, executive director of Vibrant Communities Calgary, said in an interview that paying for a regular adult monthly pass could result in serious tradeoffs for many people who depend on the pass.

"So the people that would be using this pass really rely on it in order to make other ends meet,… [and] $20 or $50 could make the difference between making rent and being able to purchase groceries for your children that week."

She questioned the province's withdrawal after it increased spending on the senior's low-income transit pass last year.

"The investment that we're talking about to meet the province's share of this pass isn't large, it's about $6.2 million. We know that servicing poverty is incredibly expensive," she said.

"So if somebody, for example, couldn't get to their job because they couldn't rely on this transit pass and then ended up on an income support program ... that's much more expensive than actually helping people get to where they need to go."

A statement issued by Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi on X expressed similar concerns.

"Each month, this program is accessed by over 25,000 low-income Edmontonians, students and seniors who require public transit access to get to work, school, medical appointments and other services."

Sohi added that in Edmonton, demand for the program has increased 150 per cent since 2016.

"The decision to defund this program in Edmonton and Calgary shows that the province's priorities are in the wrong place."

In the province's statement to CBC News, Cioban said the government is investing $887 million over three years for Edmonton LRT projects, and $667 million over three years for Calgary LRT projects.

"These investments will increase access to transit for all residents in our two major cities."

He added the province also supports both cities through the Family and Community Support Services (FCSS) program, with $31 million in support directed to low-income Calgarians, and $23.3 million to Edmonton.

After discussing the issue on Tuesday, Calgary city council unanimously passed a motion to request the province reduce its 2024 property tax requisition by $6.2 million to offset the cut.