Transit union president sets the record straight on city council pulling out of regional transit commission

Ex-Edmonton city councilor Michael Walters made several assertions in a recent column about city council’s decision to withdraw from the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Transit Commission (EMTSC) that deserve careful scrutiny. In his list of reasons why the commission initiative failed, Walters lists first,  “The outsized influence of the local transit union at city hall.”

While Amalgamated Transit Union Local 569 is honoured that Walters would assign us such power, we doubt that our influence was council’s first priority. In fact, we see 13 intelligent, committed members of city council who heard from numerous sources about the regional initiative and made a reasoned decision based on facts and the needs of their constituents. Walters owes them an apology. Instead he hectors them. 

Image via the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Transit Commission website. 

Second on the Walters list of why this version of regionalization failed is what he calls the “myth of existing regional transit.” As long as we’re talking about mythologies, we should include the myth of efficiencies and savings. Walters and his cohort, including St. Albert city councilor and EMSTC chair Wes Brodhead spent considerable resources promoting the idea, with Brodhead explicitly saying, “We’re going to save you some money,” in a 2020 meeting. In the end, there were no savings. In fact, there’s a long list of expenses that the municipalities are still on the hook for and we have yet to see a single hour of transit service.

Transit users commute daily on fixed routes to and from Edmonton, St Albert, Stony Plain, Spruce Grove, Ft. Saskatchewan, Strathcona County, Beaumont and Leduc and they do it on a single fare medium that is accepted by all buses. The Arc card is  not a myth. The union supports and promotes the concept of a regional transit system and we look forward to participating in the development of more and better regional measures and to doing it without expensive commissions, CEOs, COOs, executive assistants, legal counsel and external communications and government relations contractors. 

Walters also worries about how regional relationships will be affected by their decision. Having served on council for a number of years, Walters well knows that council’s first priority is to represent Edmontonians. Council, in its wisdom, decided that funding the regional transit commission was not in the best interests of Edmontonians. Regional relationships have to take a back seat when it’s Edmonton footing the bill. 

When Strathcona County, the second largest partner in the commission, pulled out of it in 2020, there was a frantic push to assure the region that the commission was still viable. In truth, that was the beginning of the end for the commission and it should have been stopped dead in its tracks at that time. It was the failure of the Don Iveson-era city councils, of which Walters was a member, that cost Edmonton so much. To now criticize the current council for fixing their mistakes is both unfair and unreasonable. 

And Walters sang a much different tune about the prerogative of elected officials to represent their community back when Strathcona County pulled out of the commission. 

"They were always a bit skeptical of the value of letting go of some autonomy and control over a system that they're very proud of. So that's their right as elected representatives of that community to make that choice," Walters said to the CBC in February of 2020

As for a path forward, we hope that it is already underway. ATU is prepared to roll up its sleeves and get to work developing more and better regional initiatives sooner than later. The will is there. Now we need to commit to transit ideas and move forward to a brilliant regional transit system that is the envy of the country. We don’t need an expensive boondoggle that robs us of direct control of the heart of our city plan and serves only the needs of a few at the top.

Steve Bradshaw is the elected president and business agent of Amalgamated Transit Union 569. 

This is a lightly edited version of an email blast that Bradshaw sent to ATU 569 members.