Denley: Warning — speed bumps ahead for Ottawa’s electric bus plan

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This all-in commitment to e-buses comes at a time when confidence in the city and its transit operation is rarer than some of the minerals that go into bus batteries.

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It’s not every city that would base the future reliability of its public transit system on an evolving technology that has acknowledged limitations in a cold climate, but that’s what Ottawa city councillors will do Wednesday when they approve spending $974 million to add 350 electric buses. It’s the first step to a fully electric fleet by 2036.

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In fact, no city in North America has made such a precipitous leap into the electric bus future. The Toronto Transit Commission operates 60 electric buses, the largest fleet on the continent. Toronto has agreed to purchase 300 more, but it’s not going all-in, like Ottawa plans to. Toronto has also ordered 565 hybrid-electric buses. Toronto has 2,100 buses in total, Ottawa a little over 900.

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One might have hoped Ottawa’s recent LRT experience would create a certain amount of caution about changing transit technology, but apparently not. Ottawa’s LRT works far differently than an electric bus, of course. The LRT’s exposed electrical connections are vulnerable to anything stronger than a cool breeze.

An electric bus loses range capacity when the temperature drops, just like other electric vehicles. The range can decline by more than one-third, which is significant when an electric bus can only run about 350 kilometres without being recharged, and that’s in ideal conditions. OC Transpo’s humble diesel buses log about 300 kilometres a day. The variable range of the electric buses will lead to some interesting scheduling challenges.

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Ottawa’s decision to go all-in on electric isn’t based on what one would call a rigorous process. The city bought four electric buses for a pilot project. They hit the road last February and by April, OC Transpo was happy to report that all was going well. The transit commission congratulated staff on the high quality of the slides that made up the brief presentation. There has been no performance update and no written evaluation since, although in response to a media inquiry, OC Transpo said, “The electric buses continue to operate well and have met all of OC Transpo’s requirements.”

By comparison, the TTC bought 60 electric buses from three manufacturers, tested them for more than a year and produced a 102-page report evaluating the models’ strengths and weaknesses.

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The change to electric comes at a time when confidence in the city and its transit operation is rarer than some of the minerals that go into bus batteries.

It’s not as if the LRT was the city’s first transit vehicle fiasco, nor even its second. Back in 2019, the city dumped 175 diesel-electric buses because their batteries were too expensive to replace after only about a decade of service. In the 1980s, Ottawa bought buses that rusted out so badly they all had to be prematurely scrapped. Then there are the famous articulated buses, which OC Transpo finally admitted won’t run in deep snow and which Transpo is keeping in the bus barn on stormy days.

The city’s new bus plan is driven by enthusiasm for greenhouse gas reductions and an even greater enthusiasm for “free” money. The federal government will give Ottawa $350 million toward the bus purchase and loan it an additional $289 million. The city is supposed to pay the one per cent interest loan back with anticipated operational savings, but if they don’t materialize, the city won’t be penalized. The rest of the money, $335 million, will come from funds the city would have spent to acquire new diesel buses.

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Who could possibly look such a gift bus in the mouth?

The only person striking a note of rational caution has been city auditor general Nathalie Gougeon, who persuaded the city to slow the pace of electric bus acquisition slightly, thinking that it might be good to see how the new buses work before buying large numbers.

Maybe the electric buses will be a huge success. They’d better be. Transit reliability and what’s left of OC Transpo’s credibility depend on it.

Randall Denley is an Ottawa political commentator and author. Contact him at randalldenley1@gmail.com

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