Canada

Transit chair hopes electric bus ‘gamble’ pays off after sweet deal offered by feds

“Let’s wait and see what the technology can do.”

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OC Transpo has gone from zero to one billion in a matter of two years as it heads for a major transformation of its road fleet, but there are still questions about how the agency will integrate more expensive electric buses.

Coun. Allan Hubley, chair of the transit commission, said the city is taking a “gamble” on the project that would roll out 450 battery-powered buses over five years when Transpo hasn’t even started a test run of the vehicles.

“But I also understand this is a financial opportunity for the taxpayers of Ottawa that isn’t going to sit on the table for too long,” Hubley said in an interview Sunday, describing an “amazing deal” from the federal government to help the city buy electric buses and related infrastructure.

“Let’s wait and see what the technology can do.”

The city’s transportation department recommends going all-in on electric battery power as its zero-emission bus technology through 2027. It would cost $986 million to buy new 40-foot buses, charging equipment, electrical upgrades at the St. Laurent garage and a backup generator powered by natural gas.

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Nudging the city into a major overhaul of its bus fleet are new federal programs that would cover the extra costs the city would absorb by transitioning from diesel buses to electric buses. A $400-million loan from the Canada Infrastructure Bank would be paid back from the operational savings Transpo expects to see over the lifespan of the buses. On top of that, Infrastructure Canada could provide up to $493 million.

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The transit commission will be asked to endorse the zero-emission bus project on Wednesday before council gives the final authority on June 23.

The city and feds announced the big-money partnership last week and Hubley was there to support the the project, but it wasn’t long ago that the Kanata South councillor voiced skepticism about taking a chance on a new bus technology after a fleet of hybrid buses didn’t achieve the success Transpo wanted.

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The city’s move toward electric buses was nearly frozen two years ago when staff wanted to allow for more research and testing by other agencies before considering a test project.

At the time, the city’s sole focus was on launching another electricity-powered transit project, the $2.1-billion Confederation Line LRT system, and Transpo was overwhelmed with shoring up the existing bus system during the rail construction project.

Of course, that didn’t jibe with a 2018 election commitment from Mayor Jim Watson to have an e-bus pilot project, so, with the help of some prodding by councillors like Shawn Menard, Catherine McKenney and Jenna Sudds, transit management decided to get on board.

Hubley said he’s interested to see how the first four fully electric buses handle service when they join operations this fall.

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Still, the transit commission and council will consider a large-scale bus conversion with a few unanswered questions.

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For one, the city doesn’t know for certain how the electric buses will hold up if they’re stored outdoors in Ottawa’s frigid winter air. Battery manufacturers have told city researchers that cold temperatures impact performance. As staff say in their report to the transit commission, the St. Laurent garage has enough indoor capacity for the buses through 2027, “but some buses will need to be stored outside eventually.”

Also, the city doesn’t have a complete picture of what the long-term maintenance costs will look like for the batteries. There isn’t enough data on the existing, and relatively new, electric bus fleets in other jurisdictions.

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Plus, it’s hard to estimate what the cost will be to power the buses. The staff report to the transit commission points out that electricity prices could increase and diesel prices could drop, impacting the city’s ability to pay back the loan with the operational savings. The city still needs to negotiate the final terms of the loan with the infrastructure bank.

The short-term bus conversion might not include articulated and double-decker buses since those options are not yet widely available. Transpo expects to need dozens of replacement articulated buses between 2024 and 2026, while dozens of double-decker buses are scheduled to be replaced in 2027.

On the other hand, the city’s leap into zero-emission buses will be a difference-maker in reducing the municipal government’s greenhouse gas emissions. Council has a goal of eliminating all greenhouse gas emissions produced by the municipal government by 2040. Enviro-friendly buses, along with LRT expansions, have been considered in the city’s targets.

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Hubley said he has made sure the zero-emission bus project won’t stymie the city’s plan to extend LRT to Kanata one day.

The city’s long-range financial plan counts on the federal and provincial governments to fully fund future LRT expansions.

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twitter.com/JonathanWilling

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