Ottawa Citizen: Transpo wants to buy electric buses without having a trial run

Jon Willing

OC Transpo is charged up over the prospect of buying electric buses, even proposing to skip a pilot project and just start acquiring them without going through a procurement competition.

“You don’t need to pilot this. You should do it,” transportation general manager John Manconi told the transit commission on Wednesday.

Transpo senses that city council is eager to acquire electric buses, so legally sole-sourcing the purchase from an existing supplier who previously won a competitive process (Nova Bus) could be the quick way to introduce two 40-foot battery-powered transit vehicles.

It seemed a big sole-sourced purchase was on the fast-track before the transit commission pumped the brakes, agreeing with direction from Coun. Riley Brockington to pursue a competitive procurement for electric buses, rather than just handing a contract to Nova.

Coun. Catherine McKenney, who first put the electric bus issue on the political agenda this term, agreed that a competitive contract process was the best approach.

There are people who “are really champing at the bit to get this right,” she said.

Over the past seven weeks, Transpo has gone from recommending against an electric bus trial to wanting to spend millions to add the vehicles to the transit fleet.

On June 12, council unanimously supported a recommendation from Mayor Jim Watson directing staff to bring a plan to the transit commission for adding electric buses during this term of council, which ends in 2022. Watson ran for re-election last fall on a pledge to introduce electric buses to the Transpo fleet.

Transpo, which is cool to the idea of a pilot project since it can monitor the trials of other transit agencies, has found between $5 million and $6 million to buy battery-electric buses and the necessary charging infrastructure. The money is from reallocating funds in capital projects. Transpo would need political approval for the electric bus purchase, likely through a report next fall on capital projects.

The transit commission heard a diesel bus costs about $630,0000, where a comparable electric bus would be $1.2 million.

Coun. Allan Hubley, the chair of the transit commission, has called on the city to be wary of embracing a new bus technology without doing due diligence, pointing to the dismal performance of 175 hybrid electric-diesel buses that Transpo now wants to unload.

“I don’t want to take us down that road again,” Hubley said.

Hubley supports the purchase of two electric buses, but he’s concerned about the cost if it comes to expanding the electric bus fleet, since an electric bus is about twice as much as a similar diesel bus.

He also wants Transpo to look at propulsion systems other than electric batteries, such as compressed natural gas and hydrogen.

Buying two electric buses is “a responsible use of tax dollars” so Transpo can see how the vehicles perform before buying more, Hubley said.

Advocates for electric vehicles urged the commission to pursue electric buses.

Raymond Leury, the president of the Electric Vehicle Council of Ottawa who addressed the commission, said the city has declared a climate emergency and transitioning to electric buses would be a big move in support of the declaration.

The electric bus project is one more responsibility for Transpo to shoulder, on top of getting ready for LRT service over the summer.

The transit commission also heard Wednesday from Para Transpo customers who have been experiencing huge wait times for booking trips. Customers are waiting as long as two hours on the phone.

Transpo wants to implement an online booking process, but it doesn’t have the resources to make it happen quickly. The agency was previously following advice from customer feedback sessions that recommended against having an online booking platform.

Coun. Rawlson King, who pressed management on the Para Transpo booking headaches, said it looks like Transpo is using LRT as the rationale for delaying a project that would help vulnerable residents.

“It feels like LRT has taken up all the space at the commission,” King said during the meeting.

After the meeting, Manconi dismissed suggestions that Transpo is solely focused on the LRT launch.

“We’re managing the service, we’re managing the transition and we’re doing everything that council has told us to do through the budget process,” Manconi said.

jwilling@postmedia.com

twitter.com/JonathanWilling

Catherine McKenney