Transit commission says council should approve $1B e-bus project

OC Transpo buses and riders at Hurdman Station in Ottawa.

The transit commission on Wednesday endorsed a $1-billion plan to buy hundreds of battery-powered buses as the first major step to eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from OC Transpo’s road fleet.

Council needs to provide the final authority on June 23.

A loan from the Canadian Infrastructure Bank (CIB) and grants from Infrastructure Canada prop up the city’s plan to start converting the bus fleet between 2022 and 2027.

The project to buy 450 e-buses and related infrastructure has a preliminary cost estimate of $986 million. The CIB loan would be $400 million with a one-per-cent interest rate, federal grants would total up to $493 million and the rest would come from the city capital funds already planned for bus purchases.

Council will get an opportunity to sign off on the final funding agreements with the CIB and federal government later this year after negotiations are finished.

John Manconi, the city’s general manager of transportation services, said the zero-emission conversion of Transpo’s fleet wouldn’t be affordable, and probably wouldn’t happen, without the federal funding.

The federal funding offsets the extra costs the city would incur by switching to zero-emission buses.

According to Manconi, the CIB loan wouldn’t have to be paid back if Transpo isn’t seeing operational savings from the e-bus conversion.

The e-buses would be charged at the garage, run the routes in a scheduled work black, and return to the garage for a charge. Buses take about four hours to charge. The city would require the e-buses to operate under the same weather conditions as the current diesel buses.

Pat Scrimgeour, the city’s top public transit planner, said Transpo would need to be careful about when to charge buses to avoid peak-time hydro rates.

E-buses would help the city reach its target of eliminated all greenhouse gas emissions created by the municipal government by 2040.

In the past two years, the city moved quickly to study options for a major move to zero-emission buses, especially with federal money up for grabs and an initial acquisition of four e-buses, which will enter operations later this year.

The city nixed natural gas and hybrid buses as possibilities because they wouldn’t be zero-emission. Trolley buses powered by overhead wires were ruled out because of the high cost of infrastructure and complexity of running the lines. Hydrogen fuel cell buses are not yet viable because of logistics and cost, the city concluded.

Transpo’s current bus fleet has 344 40-foot buses, 356 60-foot articulated buses, 151 double-decker buses and 81 Para Transpo mini-buses.

The conversion project has some short-term limitations, requiring the city to first look at replacing 40-foot buses. Double-decker, articulated and Para Transpo e-buses are not yet widely available.

Transpo’s bus fleet could be fully zero-emission by 2036, based on known funding sources. The city is first planning to grow its battery-powered bus fleet through 2027 before assessing further expansion.

The first large purchase under the project would be 74 40-foot e-buses, delivered in 2023.

The charging equipment would by supplied by Hydro Ottawa.

Despite all the environmental benefits from battery-powered buses, they won’t be completely zero-emission on some of Ottawa’s frigid winter days. A small diesel-powered heater would be required in very cold temperatures.

Transpo’s network is slowly making steps to becoming fully electrified, with the $2.1-billion Confederation Line LRT system blazing the trail.

There will be one major piece of Transpo infrastructure that will still depend on diesel fuel: the Trillium Line. However, new trains purchased by the city as part of the Stage 2 expansion are convertible to battery power, if Transpo and council ever want to make the switch.

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