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Alberta Dedicates $2 Billion to Transit Programs

» Commitment will improve chances of new rail transit lines in Edmonton and Calgary.

In the United States, the federal government plays a very important role in the construction of new transit systems through the awarding of billions of dollars annually with the New Starts grants process. Over the past fifty years, virtually every new rail line and most new bus rapid transit lines have been constructed with most money coming from Washington.

In Canada, the federal government plays a similarly important role in many cases; Vancouver’s Canada Line is named as such because of the significant involvement of Ottawa when sources of financing were being established. Yet many other system expansions have been built thanks to the largess of provincial governments, which are more autonomous than U.S. states. Toronto’s huge Transit City plan, though now diminished in scale, remains principally financed thanks to the Ontario government. The announcement last year by Montréal that three new Metro extensions would be built over the next few years came after an agreement by the Québec government.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, then, that Alberta has taken the primary role in advancing the capital programs of the transit systems in its biggest cities. This week, the government led by Premier Ed Stelmach cashed in on a tw0-year-old promise to invest C$2 billion in public transportation. The “Green Transit Incentives Program” — otherwise known as GreenTRIP — will require applicants to contribute at least a third of funds to any project approved after a review by the province.

By contributing a large source of the funds, the province is likely to play an important role in determining what projects will be built. In Toronto, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty exercised his influence to determine which light rail lines he would fund in face of opposition from Mayor David Miller. In Alberta, this could mean direct political control over which investments should be made in each city, though municipalities are likely to make their own decisions about how to prioritize which lines they submit for provincial grants.

For Alberta’s capital, Edmonton, and its largest city, Calgary, the money is a godsend, even though it won’t provide even close to the sum of funds required to complete the transit extension programs both cities have on tap. Both cities (and their respective suburbs) will receive C$800 million, with the remaining C$400 million going to the province’s smaller metropolitan areas.

Both Edmonton and Calgary have major transit expansion plans readied, with their respective mayors Stephen Mandel and Dave Bronconnier strong public transportation advocates much like the leaders of most major Canadian cities. Edmonton recently opened a light rail extension south of the city, and has several other lines planned. The money from Alberta will allow a 3.1 kilometer corridor reaching northeast of the city to open as planned in 2014. Calgary has a new light rail line (C-Train) currently under construction, though its C$1.6 billion Southeast light rail South Calgary Hospital line and its plan for regional commuter rail will still not be guaranteed for construction because of the limitations of the money from Alberta.

Yet a potpourri of funding sources — from municipalities, the province, and the federal government — could improve the chances of these lines seeing the light of day. There’s certainly nothing negative about a sudden big increase in available funds for transit.

For U.S. states looking to increase their influence and involvement in local transit expansion programs, Alberta’s investment could be a model to emulate. For better or worse, with increasing funding commitments come increasing political influence. For state governors wanting to demonstrate their interest in the quotidian commutes of their states’ inhabitants, a direct investment in new transit systems can’t be bad.

Image above: Calgary C-Train light rail, from Flickr user Robert Thivierge

6 replies on “Alberta Dedicates $2 Billion to Transit Programs”

I don’t know if it’s just me, but the ad hoc character of the Green TRIP program is not that good. For instance, this program was first announced two years ago, was then postponed due to the decline of oil revenues, then re-announced this week with great fanfare…

Capital programs for transit should be be a standard staple of provincial/state budgets, same as for roads construction and maintenance. Bus fleets need to be replaced every 15 years or so, service needs to be expanded, etc.

Another weak point of the Alberta program is the lack of money for planning and the short time frame for proposals (in fact monies under the program can’t be used for studies). They’ll spend 400 millions for smaller localities where I’m not sure the right kind of planning is undertaken on a regular basis. So, how effective is all this investment?

I don’t know how well it’s going to work in Edmonton or in the small cities, but Calgary made a master plan of six LRT lines in the 1980s; it’s built four and is going to use the province’s money to build part of the fifth.

There’s talk of commuter rail from Calgary to Airdrie, from Calgary to Cochrane, and from Calgary to Okotoks. It seems like a waste to me. Why would we want to make it easier for someone to live in one of these little towns and commute all the way downtown? And why is there so much popular support for it given the long distances involved and the tiny populations?

Plus, there’s nowhere for the train to stop on the way to Airdrie or Okotoks. Although with rail to Cochrane you could make a stop at Bowness, or extend the train to Canmore or Banff. (Yes, wishful thinking).

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