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No Plan B needed for electric buses, OC Transpo chief assures councillors

One of Ottawa's new electric buses on display outside city hall in June 2023. OC Transpo plans to add more than 100 electric buses to its fleet by the end of next year.  (Jean Delisle/CBC - image credit)
One of Ottawa's new electric buses on display outside city hall in June 2023. OC Transpo plans to add more than 100 electric buses to its fleet by the end of next year. (Jean Delisle/CBC - image credit)

Ottawa is behind on procuring enough buses to electrify its fleet, but the head of OC Transpo says there's no need for a backup plan to replace its aging diesel-powered vehicles.

The city has committed to go fully electric by 2036, meaning it will need to phase out its 750 diesel-powered buses.

So far, its electric fleet totals four vehicles.

Staff updated members of the transit commission on the transformation on Thursday, with discussions on evaluating the pilot project, adding new charging infrastructure, procuring additional electric vehicles and keeping older buses on the road as staff await delivery.

"We have taken the decision to retire [double-decker buses] that were very, very bad on reliability. So, we kept only the good ones," Renée Amilcar, OC Transpo's general manager, said.

"With the articulated buses, we are struggling a little bit because most of them are due to be replaced."

Renée Amilcar, OC Transpo's general manager of transit services, photographed at a transit committee meeting on June 29, 2023.
Renée Amilcar, OC Transpo's general manager of transit services, photographed at a transit committee meeting on June 29, 2023.

OC Transpo chief Renée Amilcar said the city is using preventative maintenance to keep diesel-powered buses running because of delays in procuring electric buses. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

The city's current plans would put an additional 102 electric buses on the road by the end of next year, but some councillors worry that will still place too much pressure on diesel vehicles that would have otherwise been retired from service.

"We're hoping to hold the diesel buses that could run [until] end-of-life together with duct tape and Popsicle sticks as long as we can," said Coun. Tim Tierney. "Do we have a Plan B?"

Amilcar brushed off those concerns and rejected Tierney's description of ongoing "preventative maintenance." She said even if the city wanted to purchase new diesel buses, many manufacturers are phasing them out.

Ottawa to diversify its electric fleet

When councillors committed in 2021 to purchasing only electric vehicles in the future, the city had hoped to have more of them by now. But for several reasons, the city has had to tap the brakes.

Amilcar pointed to recommendations from the city's auditor-general to slow down procurement and rely on lessons learned by the City of Toronto. There have also been delays in government funding.

"The process prior to ordering those buses was a little bit longer," she said. "Now, we are OK."

The city has reached a deal with New Flyer to receive 22 buses in the final months of this year, and another 29 toward the end of 2025.

Ottawa's current electric buses are New Flyer's XE40 model, which staff said have tested well.

The city is still working on a deal to obtain a similar number of electric buses from NOVA, a company Amilcar said has provided some of Ottawa's most reliable diesel buses.

"We don't want to rely only on one vendor. We know that the electric bus is still a new technology, so we will continue to learn with those vendors," Amilcar said.

"We don't want to take any risks."