Transit Commission approves funding for electric transit buses

The circumstances behind the Transit Commission’s emergency meeting on January 27 gave cause for some suspicion. The meeting was called for the commission to approve the funding being directed to Ottawa’s planned Zero-Emission Bus (ZEB) acquisition, which includes a $350M grant from Infrastructure Canada and a $75M drawdown from the Canada Infrastructure Bank, before the city council draft budget meeting on February 1.

The meeting involved an extensive presentation from OC Transpo followed by brief presentations from five delegates representing outside organizations. For reasons unclear, though, this meeting was announced on very short notice, and a representative from Enbridge was one of the five parties permitted to delegate.

Despite these strange circumstances, the meeting was generally very positive towards the ZEB acquisition, with all but one councillor voting in favour of the funding plan. The focal point was the initial presentation by OC Transpo, in which a representative laid out in great detail the plan for Ottawa’s planned shift to ZEBs. This included the logistics of the plan in the shorter, transitionary and longer terms, an in-depth look at where the funding would be going, and a look at some cost/benefit angles, which ultimately found that the expense of the ZEB acquisition will pay for itself in savings.

This presentation was the source of most of the skeptical questioning from the commission, as some councillors found that the ZEB technology was not certifiably reliable enough for such a weighty cost and commitment from the city. Indeed, there is a lack of trial data for these buses in the specific context of this city, seeing as this program is still in its early stages: much of OC Transpo’s presentation was based on existing data from other cities that have already implemented other programs to successful results. Councillor Wilson Lo, in particular, expressed his lack of confidence in the benefits and reliability data presented by OC Transpo, and he became the only one of the eight councillors to vote in the negative on this plan.

The extensive OC Transpo presentation was followed by the five delegate presentations, each of which were permitted to be a maximum of five minutes. The first of these was the Enbridge representative, who spent his allotted time advertising for buses powered by Renewable Natural Gas. The crux of his argument was a recent study by Canadian transit think-tank CUTRIC, which claims that these gas buses are more carbon-effective than ZEBs. These claims were not given any real credence by the councillors, and the subject appeared to be forgotten after a couple of light follow-up questions.

Although the presence of Enbridge at a commission meeting about climate action in the city raises eyebrows, the following four delegates were very well selected, and each added some meaningful nuance to the conversation. One speaker from Ottawa Transit Riders endorsed the plan from a workers’ rights perspective, explaining that the quieter ZEBs will be beneficial to drivers who can develop hearing problems from the noise level of the current bus fleet. Representatives from the Electric Vehicle Council of Ottawa and CAFES Ottawa both discussed other benefits of the transition and provided full-throated endorsements, with the latter group recommending further acceleration of the plan. A representative from the CNIB discussed accessibility issues for sight-impaired riders, explaining that the committee’s recommendations ought to include a requirement for auditory cues in ZEBs when speeding up or slowing down; the commission deserves some praise here, as the committee amended the original recommendations in these regards in advance of their being presented to council four days later.

The commission eventually approved the funding plan to be presented to council, with Councillor Lo being the only dissenting vote. The plan was approved in turn by city council on February 1, where it received 19 positive votes and 6 negative.

The shift to ZEBs is a positive step towards Ottawa’s eventual goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from city operations to zero by 2040. Ecology Ottawa fully endorses this transition and recommend that the city take further steps to eliminate other sources of emissions—for example, by transitioning to electric school buses. Over 80,000 children take the bus to school across Ontario every day, and electrifying the province’s school bus fleet could eliminate more than 360,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emission per year. Ottawa is taking an important step in becoming an early adopter of city-wide ZEB technology. With the climate crisis upon us and the city’s planned date of eliminating emissions closing in by the year, this will have to be the first of many innovations if the city is serious about meeting its climate goals.

Matthew Slevin is a third-year journalism student at Carleton University.

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