Feb. 3 update:
This story has been updated with additional information and comments from Mayor Cathy Heron.
The province has given the green light for St. Albert and seven other Metro Edmonton municipalities to establish a regional transit service commission, the first of its kind in the province.
Its objective is to integrate and deliver transit services with an eye to efficiency, affordability, and improved mobility for the approximately 1.5 million residents in the area. The commission includes the communities of Beaumont, Devon, Edmonton, Fort Saskatchewan, Leduc, St. Albert, Spruce Grove and Stony Plain.
This ostensibly means all members are about to get more 'bus' for their bucks.
"I truly believe that the region has taken a step forward in terms of grappling with the idea that together, we're stronger than we are as individuals. It's almost cliche to quote 'synergy', saying that the sum is greater than the total of the parts, all those things, but it's true. We can provide similar services for less financial investment," offered RTSC chair and St. Albert Coun. Wes Brodhead.
"We can provide seamless inter-regional service delivery where lines on maps don't necessarily describe hard barriers."
He said this commission offers the mandate to capitalize on existing efficiencies for those municipalities that already have transit services, while also giving others such as Morinville and Devon the chance to accelerate up to speed in a big way. In the future, the expectation is that all of those commuters (within a region that covers 13 cities, towns and districts) can soon feel more at ease when transferring from bus to bus to LRT, and back again.
"What regional transit allows is for those barriers to evaporate. It's all about, really, a customer service experience. You know, if you don't honour the customer that rides your system, it's no different than any other business. They tend to go elsewhere," Brodhead said.
In a Thursday press release on the province's decision, Alberta's Interim Minister of Municipal Affairs Ric McIver said the commission will help connect the "people and economies of the Edmonton region with safer and more efficient public transit."
“This is a great example of municipalities taking the lead to solve local transit issues. By empowering local decision-making, Alberta’s government is cutting red tape and saving taxpayer dollars.”
Mayor Cathy Heron said she was pleased with the announcement after years of work between her, Brodhead and Nolan Crouse (during his mayoralty).
"Wes and I have been exchanging lots of emails that are just honestly full of emotion, because it's no small feat to bring eight municipalities together. We're excited," she exclaimed. "There were a ton of meetings that Wes was so great in leading everyone through."
She said she strongly believes in transit and in its future, even if the full magnitude of what this accomplishment means will come in the years and decades to come. While the planning for this moment has already involved countless meetings, the real work is now ahead.
"The conversations that are happening at the region are about sharing services, and getting better efficiencies and a better bang for our tax dollar by sharing services," she explained.
The work of the RTSC will embolden further collaborations between metropolitan municipalities, she added, something she keeps on her desktop as part of her efforts on the board of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association. Thinking ahead to 2050, regional transit is the sustainable way to go even if most people are still attached to their cars in 2021.
"People like their cars. We're very much a car-centric society up here and that's going to take a long time to shift away from but I do believe that the future is in mass movement of people. This sets the groundwork for that future," Heron said.
Edmonton Councillor Michael Walters, the vice-chair for the commission, called the decision a "momentous event in the history of our region."
“This new organization has a vital role to play in reigniting our economy and its purpose extends far beyond the end of this pandemic to contemplate the future of mobility and overall health of our communities.”
The next step for the commission is to recruit their inaugural chief executive officer and to hold the first official Board meeting. Member municipalities have targeted the roll-out of regional services for mid- to late 2022.
While hopes remain high for the RTSC, the Edmonton-area transit union expressed concern jobs could be lost or collective agreements not honoured as a result of the commission's creation.