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OC Transpo to spend $1B to bring in electric bus fleet by 2027

·3 min read
OC Transpo staff credit federal infrastructure funding arrangements for aiding the city's shift from diesel to electric buses. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press - image credit)
OC Transpo staff credit federal infrastructure funding arrangements for aiding the city's shift from diesel to electric buses. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press - image credit)

The City of Ottawa is ready to supercharge plans to electrify its bus fleet by spending nearly $1 billion on 450 buses and charging infrastructure by 2027.

Transit commission endorsed a plan on Wednesday that dramatically speeds up converting the 932-bus fleet that currently runs on diesel. The transit agency will start by purchasing 74 battery-electric buses next year, which are nearly double the price of their diesel counterparts, staff said.

The goal now is to have a zero-emission fleet by 2036, a move that dwarfs the previous plan for a four-bus pilot project.

City staff say the major transition requires not just $760 million for new buses, but also retraining drivers and mechanics, rescheduling routes to deal with a shorter travel range, and spending $204 million on charging equipment for Hydro Ottawa to install and run in the St. Laurent bus garage.

"The transition costs would not have been affordable without those funding programs from the federal government," said OC Transpo's Pat Scrimgeour.

He was referring to an announcement made last week that could see the city receive a $400 million loan from the Canada Infrastructure Bank, and up to $493 million more in grants from Infrastructure Canada under a $2.75 billion fund for zero-emission public transit and school buses.

"We need all those financial inputs otherwise this deal does not work," said John Manconi, the outgoing head of OC Transpo.

Big shift

Staff looked at several ways to move toward a zero-emission fleet, and settled on battery-electric for now, noting 40-foot models are now "proven" and can now be bought almost "off the shelf".

The batteries can run about 286 kilometres on one charge and buses will have small diesel heaters to make sure batteries don't draw down too much power on the coldest winter days, staff said.

Staff promised to check in with council before yearly purchases of replacement buses, and would keep itself open to other technologies, such as hydrogen.

"We all know how technology evolves. Just think of your iPhones and the evolution of those. It's exponential," said Manconi.

Some councillors noted the new plan was a pivot for Manconi from past stances he has taken on zero-emission technology and the ability of OC Transpo to convert its fleet. In 2019 he had advised against even starting a pilot project.

"I was never opposed to electrification of buses or zero-emission buses," Manconi told reporters. "What I was clearly saying was, unless there was a funding source ... that the city wasn't going to be able to move forward in any meaningful way."

Final city council approval next week

Transit commissioners also sought assurances the buses would indeed perform in winter, and questioned the costs and risks.

Staff acknowledged federal policies could change and buses might not be as reliable or long-lasting, which it aims to address in warranties. The city plans to install a backup generator at the garage in the case of power outages.

Meanwhile, Manconi noted the fine print on the infrastructure bank loan will say if electric buses don't reap savings from fuel costs and maintenance, the city doesn't have to repay the loan.

Commission was unanimous in supporting the plan, which now heads to council for final approval June 23.

"Wow. What a fantastic transition. What a great report," said Coun. Shawn Menard, who led the effort to declare a climate emergency back in 2019 and further reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"We wouldn't be able to meet our targets without this. That is a big, big part of that."

While staff are set to negotiate the funding agreements with federal partners, the details will be brought back to council in the fall before they are signed.

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