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Calgary Transit on-demand private providers throw ‘wrench’ into contract talks

Calgary's transit union is suggesting members to boycott an employee appreciation barbecue to send a message.

Calgary Transit members are being urged to boycott a planned employee appreciation event later this week because they say the City isn’t bargaining in good faith with transit employees.

This is, in part, due to an issue that drew a question from Ward 5 Coun. Raj Dhaliwal during Tuesday’s Public Hearing Meeting of Council around Calgary Transit’s handling of On Demand Transit.

Dhaliwal’s question alluded to dissatisfaction among transit workers that Calgary Transit is farming out the delivery of on-demand service to a third-party provider. He asked about concerns over safety, regulation and cost to taxpayers.

“More importantly, what kind of detrimental effect it could have on the morale of our transit operators as they may perceive it (as) a move on the city’s perspective towards non-public service providing model,” Dhaliwal asked.

He told council he was raising the questions because they’d been brought to him by transit operators, many of whom live in Ward 5.

On Demand Transit is a service being delivered in Springbank Hill on the city’s west side and in the north Calgary communities of Livingston / Carrington. Riders can request shuttles where and when needed. It’s meant to provide transit service in areas where ridership may be too low for a traditional service or lack available infrastructure – like in newer areas.

Calgary Transit director Sharon Fleming said that they will be switching Springbank Hill back to regularly scheduled service later this year. They’re also looking at on-demand with Calgary Transit vehicles and operators in the Foothills Industrial Park to help connect 52 Street SE.

“At this time, we have no intention of outsourcing any existing transit operations to a third party,” she said.

A current request for proposal (RFP) is out right now looking for on-demand technology and a transportation service provider to operate in newly developed areas that don’t have a fixed service.

This is like the service being offered in Livingston / Carrington, Fleming said.

Boycott the BBQ: ATU 583

The question of having privately contracted transit service is driving a wedge between the City and workers with the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 583.

It prompted a June 16, 2023 post to the union’s website by ATU 583 president Mike Mahar that said things had been going smoothly in recent contract talks, but this “has really thrown a wrench into negotiations.”

The post references the on-demand RFP, and a request for information for rebuilds on “LRT trucks/bogies.”

As a result, union officers and the executive board say they won’t attend an employee appreciation barbecue planned for June 23 and 24. They did write that employees are free to make their own choice on attending but that a boycott sends a message.

“ATU Local 583 believes this event is a sham given that work being contracted out denotes the exact opposite: unappreciation,” Mahar wrote.

In an interview with LWC, Mahar said that in 2020 they’d negotiated a letter of understanding to provide on-demand service. He acknowledged that on-demand transit service provided through Calgary Transit costs more.

He alleged that private contractors weren’t paying a living wage and that any profit made isn’t being spent back into the local economy.

Mahar also cited passenger vans being used for service and that creates accessibility challenges. Space is an issue, as is safety, he said. He also questioned the reliability.

In the end, it comes down to money and ideology, Mahar said.

“I guarantee you there isn’t a service in the City of Calgary that can’t be done cheaper – the cheapest,” he said.

“And you get what you pay for.”

Mahar also suggested that having private providers do Calgary Transit work had a collateral impact. Some private providers may also offer school bus services. He said that would mean drivers deployed to on-demand wouldn’t be available to do school routes, adding pressure to a perennially short supply of those drivers.

Transitioning on demand to regular service

When asked, Calgary Transit wasn’t able to share the cost of delivering the on-demand service through a third-party provider due to an RFP being in the market.

They did request between $3 million and $6 million annually over the 2023 – 2026 service plans and budgets to fund between three and six new on-demand services. A 2022 report showed that on-demand service through private contractors had benefits.

“Utilizing private contractors for this service unlocks a number of benefits including lower operating costs and reduced resources required at Calgary Transit,” that report read.

It also notes they did have issues with some stuck vehicles during snowstorms and when operating with fewer redundancies it has caused disruptions to service (although they said it was rare).

Calgary Transit itself has been battling a post-pandemic driver shortage. Fleming said private contractors allow them to continue offering service to these areas.

“We are currently constrained by resources in our fleet and workforce and this approach allows us to be nimble and expand our services to Calgarians, ultimately leading to an expansion of fixed route services in the long run,” Fleming told councillors.

Further, Fleming addressed potential safety and service concerns. She said the providers were well-established companies in the Calgary region.

“They have high customer satisfaction ratings and to be successful in the RFP process, all proponents have to demonstrate their processes for providing a safe environment and improving the customer experience,” she said.