Transit commission approves nearly $1B e-bus plan after 2nd look

A new electric OC Transpo bus sits in a garage during a photo op Nov. 26, 2021. After receiving federal grant money and a Canada Infrastruture Bank loan, city staff is looking for council's approval to purchase 350 similar buses.  (Frédéric Pepin/Radio-Canada - image credit)
A new electric OC Transpo bus sits in a garage during a photo op Nov. 26, 2021. After receiving federal grant money and a Canada Infrastruture Bank loan, city staff is looking for council's approval to purchase 350 similar buses. (Frédéric Pepin/Radio-Canada - image credit)
  • UPDATE | Council approved this item on Feb. 1, 2023.  David Brown, George Darouze, Allan Hubley, Clarke Kelly, Wilson Lo and Matthew Luloff voted against. 

After providing extra scrutiny in an emergency meeting Friday, the transit commission voted overwhelmingly in favour of the city's plan to buy 350 electric buses over the next three years.

Friday's meeting took place after city council voted Wednesday to further scrutinize the city's e-bus plan. Council members said after the LRT inquiry, this pricey transit spending plan needed more examination.

Seven members of the commission supported city staff's plan, with one member voting against.

The plan to switch the entire diesel fleet to electric, first announced in June 2021, was projected to purchase 450 buses for the approximate $1 billion price tag.

Rising costs and a shorter window of available federal funding now means the city would only get 350 buses within that budget, staff said.

The city will also need to build another garage to house any further electric buses, as well as the charging infrastructure.

On Friday, staff walked the commission through the more detailed proposal that would see the city phase in the e-buses as its diesel buses age out of service.

Data from 4-bus pilot 

They presented the findings of the four-bus pilot project that began a year ago. Each electric bus has travelled around 50,000 kilometres in that time.

Richard Holder, the City of Ottawa's director of engineering services, told the commission all four were operating within the design specifications. The buses have a range of 280 and 350 kilometres before needing to be charged — and can be re-charged in four hours.

Holder said during colder temperatures the buses were still in that range, but on the lower end.

Wilson Lo, the councillor for Barrhaven East and a former OC Transpo bus driver, wanted to see a more thorough pilot.

"One winter in service with a fleet of four is not enough to meaningfully base a decision with such heavy financial implications upon," he told the commission. OC Transpo's current fleet is around 900 buses.

Lo told the commission he remembered promises of savings when OC Transpo purchased hybrid buses and said the city never saw those savings materialize. The buses were all retired while older diesel buses are still on the road.

City of Ottawa
City of Ottawa

The rookie councillor was the lone detractor of the e-bus plan, though.

To fund the bus purchase, the city plans to use money already earmarked for replacement buses, take advantage of an Infrastructure Canada grant for cities to switch to zero-emission buses, and take out a loan with the Canada Infrastructure Bank.

The loan would be repaid with cost savings from the buses — it's expected their motors will require less maintenance and their brakes will last longer, in addition to not using fuel.

"I understand that new technologies ultimately need buy-in to be able to improve and evolve, but the loan is too great of a risk at a time when the city should be more financially risk-averse," Lo said.

City of Ottawa
City of Ottawa

Coun. Shawn Menard questioned Holder about the age of the technology used for the e-buses — as the new Alstom light rail vehicles have had trouble since LRT arrived in Ottawa — but Holder said Edmonton, Toronto and Chicago will have a fully electric bus fleet by 2040.

"We are not a new adopter. … Moscow has 1,000 buses. They've gone through five winters, they're reporting no interruptions with their service, and they are committed to going full electric,"  Holder said.

He also urged councillors to avoid further delays because there are a "number of municipalities wanting to launch procurement programs."

"There's a limited supply and high demand for the zero-emission buses that could impact availability and cost, that is likely to be compounded the longer we delay in making a decision," said Holder.

Right, but painful move 

Josipa Petrunic researches zero-emission buses and is the CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium.

She says Holder is on the right track as it's likely already going to be hard for the city to procure all the buses in its plan. Petrunic estimates a bus purchased this year will probably be on the road in 2025, with supply chain delays, few Canadian suppliers and high demand.

But she disagrees with the assessment the city is slow on the uptake of electric buses.

"OC Transpo is actually ahead of the curve if you look at it from the size of the city perspective and the fact they've got their first four buses out the door," she said.

The first buses are the hardest, but she said switching over the whole fleet will be a painful process.

"Going from four buses to a couple hundred electric buses is just a complete transplant of every organ in their body and their brain," she said.

"This is the hardest thing that they're probably going to have to do for the rest of this half of the century."

On the positive side, the city's LRT struggles may be an advantage, according to her, as the city has already wrestled with powering transit with its electrical grid and has electrical engineers on staff.

Council will review the spending proposal at its next meeting Feb. 1.

The city's auditor general, who has completed two sprint audits of the procurement process as it progresses, is expected to release a third on the financing plan on Feb. 17. She has already shared her recommendations with city staff, who have incorporated their recommendations into their report.