Province reverses decision to cut funding for low-income bus passes in Calgary and Edmonton

The Alberta government says it
The Alberta government says it

In a whirlwind 24 hours, Alberta's UCP government has reversed the decision to cut its share of funding for low-income transit passes in the province's two largest cities.

The mayors of Calgary and Edmonton both raised the alarm on Tuesday about the funding cut, which could have jeopardized the future of the passes in the two major centres.

In a statement sent to CBC News on Wednesday morning, Seniors, Community and Social Services Minister Jason Nixon's office says that Alberta's government "understands the need to support low-income Albertans."

"Following conversations with the two largest cities, it is clear that the cities are not able to pay for their full programs at this time. As a result, Alberta's government will continue to extend this funding to the cities and work with them to ensure their low-income transit program continues to be funded in the future."

Calgary received $6.2 million from the province last year for the program, which allows low-income residents 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.

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek told reporters Wednesday she spoke with Nixon, and he confirmed the province would be providing Calgary $6.2 million — the same amount as last year — for its low-income transit program.

"There's a comment about how the city simply can't afford to do its part, and this is a subsidy. Let's be perfectly clear, income supports are not a municipal responsibility," said Gondek.

"Income support is the job of the provincial government."

In Edmonton, the program is accessed each month by over 25,000 residents.

Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said he appreciates that the provincial government recognized the negative impact defunding the city's Ride Transit program would have.

"The City of Edmonton is proud to support this program, even though it is an example of Alberta's big cities stepping in to fund support programs for low income Albertans that fall under provincial jurisdiction," reads Sohi's statement.

Passes are the cities' responsibility: minister

The Alberta government announced it was adding an additional $6 million in funding for Calgary and Edmonton's low-income transit programs in February 2023.

On Wednesday, Nixon confirmed the amount of money promised to the two cities would remain the same for the rest of this fiscal year.

The minister told reporters the decision to stop subsidizing the low-income transit pass program was about meeting provincial budget targets, but after listening to feedback from Calgary and Edmonton's mayors, the province would "maintain the funding that [it] committed to."

Nixon called the provincial government's financial support for low-income transit passes in the two cities a pilot project that keeps being renewed. He said such programs are the cities' responsibilities.

"We will make sure that where we end up is in a spot where the cities can afford to maintain this program," he said. "But we'll have to figure out the best way to bring permanency to this."

The minister also said he didn't know that his department met with the two cities to discuss the budget target process, which is when the conversation of funds for low-income transit passes occurred.

"So we'll have to continue to look elsewhere to be able to meet our fiscal obligations."

These are stills of the Capital line LRTS main stops. Southgate Stop, UofA Stop and in addition NAITs LRT Stop
These are stills of the Capital line LRTS main stops. Southgate Stop, UofA Stop and in addition NAITs LRT Stop

In Edmonton, the city's Ride Transit program is accessed each month by over 25,000 residents. (Chris Mihailides/CBC)

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said she doesn't believe the situation was handled "particularly well."

Smith was asked about the revisions to the province's funding during an appearance on the CBC's Power and Politics on Wednesday.

"It's unfortunate that it was communicated the way it was. I think it caught the mayor of Calgary, Edmonton by surprise," said Smith.

"We don't like to do that so we'll be a lot more careful about how we have some of these program changes communicated in the future."

'We'd have to cut off other expenses'

People who use a low-income transit pass say they are an important part of their personal budget.

William Connelly works in the trades, and right now, he's going to school in Calgary. He calls the low-income transit pass "amazing" and "a lifesaver" for him during this period of his life.

"With the economy, and just having a well-paying job for so many years, and then just being unemployed because of the state of things … it's the little things that add up over time," he said. "I'm just glad it's here and that the city provides it."

Connelly uses the money he saves from the transit pass on groceries and utilities, and he's not alone.

"We are new immigrants here so this is quite a beneficial program for us," said Manmeet Kaur, a Calgary woman who relies on the low-income transit pass to balance her budget.

Without it, she says "there would be no other option."

"We'd have to cut off other expenses."

Kaur uses her pass to get to work daily, so she says she would need to look to find savings within her family's grocery budget.

This sends a signal that we can't ignore affordability. - Meaghon Reid, Vibrant Communities Calgary

Edmonton Ward Dene city councillor Aaron Paquette says the cost of transit fares can "change lives."

"Frankly, the people using that service are using it to get to doctors appointments, job interviews, bringing their kids to school, and just the things they need to do to live their life to improve their life," said Paquette.

"Why on earth would you want to take that away?"

Advocates for poverty reduction say affordable transit is an important strategy.

Meaghon Reid, executive director of Vibrant Communities Calgary, said in an interview that she believes the province heard the amount of "distress and urgency" in response to the decision to cut-funding.

"People who rely on this transit pass and who are living in low-income have had a very distressing 24 hours," Reid said. "This sends a signal that we can't ignore affordability."