Toronto rapidly buying dozens of electric buses despite red flags

Photo: TTC’s Vehicles Program head Bem Case by Rosemary Frei

The Toronto Transit  Commission (TTC) has committed to buying  60 battery-electric buses (BEBs) by mid-2020. And the transit agency plans to purchase another 847 by 2027. The goal is to have a zero-emission fleet as quickly as possible.

The BEBs cost $1.5 million each. This is more than twice the $717,000 cost of clean-diesel buses and 50 per cent more than the $1-million price tag for hybrid-electric-buses. Both are alternatives being used in the TTC's bid to lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Moreover, the agency's plans comprise one of the largest electric-bus purchases in the world. The 60-bus pilot itself involves far more buses than, for example, Montreal's three-BEB test.

Notably even Norway, which is a leader in using electric vehicles to reduce cities' carbon footprints, isn’t plunging into BEBs nearly as quickly.

The first 30 BEBs are scheduled to arrive in Toronto by June 2019; there will be 10 each from the Chinese company BYD, American firm Proterra and Canadian company New Flyer. The TTC has not yet determined the supplier of the next 30 BEBs. Meanwhile, at the June 2018 TTC Board meeting the project budget had already reached $120 million.

Purchasing hundreds of the BEBs will in fact add up to many billions of dollars, especially when one includes the cost to retrofit existing bus garages for electrical charging and/or the construction of purpose-built garages, as well as the purchase and installation other charging and energy-storage infrastructure (including along bus routes, if needed).

Yet there has not been an objective, transparent, value-for-money analysis to compare all the options for green-bus technology and what will give us the biggest GHG-reduction bang for our limited bucks. This seems very surprising considering the huge budget pressure the TTC is facing.

A 2016 expert report commissioned by the Los Angeles Metro transit authority concluded it would be years until battery technology was capable of replacing conventional buses, and that “currently available technology can cut most of the pollution at a tenth [of] the cost” (see more in my second article, to be published by rabble.ca on Thursday, July 19).

Nevertheless, the TTC is making a beeline for BEBs, with the strategy of using the federal government’s Public Transit Infrastructure Fund (PTIF) to subsidize the bus purchases.

Yet no one can predict how many years the PTIF funds will be available. And in any case, all the money still comes from taxpayers’ pockets.

Why the rush? Who or what is pushing the cash-strapped city of Toronto and its transit agency into this very expensive project?

I’ve uncovered information, including documents I obtained via a Freedom of Information request, that suggests political pressure is at play in Toronto.

 Among the documents is a July 7, 2017 email from one TTC executive to another stating in part, “the City wants us to expedite the studying of this [BEB] technology ASAP.”

Transit expert Steve Munro also has observed “there is a strong political push toward the battery ‘zero emission’ option.”

“If the TTC is serious about evaluating electric bus technology, this should be a fair and open comparison between vendors, not a sweetheart deal. Too much is at stake in the future of bus service quality for the TTC to be suckered (or worse) into buying buses that do not deliver on their promises,” Munro commented in his June 11, 2018, excellent and exhaustive blog entry about the TTC’s planned BEB procurement. 

“It is ironic that so much invective is directed at Bombardier for their streetcars, while would-be providers of new buses get a free ride.”

How Did we Get Here?

In July 2017, Toronto city council endorsed the TransformTO’s plan for an 80 per cent reduction of the city’s 1990 GHG levels by 2050.

Also, Toronto has signed onto the C40 Fossil Fuel Streets Declaration. Part of this is a pledge by mayors of big cities to procure only battery-electric transit vehicles from 2025 onward, and to take other measures to have their cities be near-zero-emission by 2050.

Former Toronto mayor David Miller became C40’s North American Regional Director and Ambassador for Inclusive Climate Change in October 2017. Billionaire and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is board president.

The plan to go have Toronto public transit go electric started in earnest at the September 5, 2017, TTC Board meeting, at which I literally had a front-row seat.

On the agenda was a staff report recommending contracting Quebec-based bus manufacturer Nova for 440 clean-diesel buses. When the item came up, in a highly unusual move, representatives of BYD were added at the last minute as deputants and allowed to make a sales pitch, followed by a 20-minute question-and-answer session with the deputants -- even though BYD had been eliminated from the contract competition because it does not make clean-diesel buses.

Next, acting CEO Rick Leary said the TTC was going to release a Request for Information for companies that make electric buses; this is the first step in the process of BEB procurement.

A few minutes later, TTC commissioner Alan Heisey suggested reducing the Nova bus order from 440 to 325, and instead opening the remaining 115 buses up for bids from the companies responding to the new RFI.

Councillor, deputy mayor and TTC commissioner Denzil Minnan-Wong introduced a motion formalizing that suggestion.

Board chair and councillor Josh Colle raised some objections. Then-CEO Andy Byford also objected. He said that while he supports the goal of switching to all-electric vehicles, the transit body’s previous experience with hybrid buses showed “the batteries were a disaster.… [T]hat’s the reason we are somewhat reticent about diving into technology before we’re certain we’re not going to get our fingers burned again.”

Nevertheless, the motion passed by a vote of eight to two. The two dissenters were Colle and commissioner and councillor Mary Fragedakis. (The pair has not opposed BEB purchases in subsequent TTC-Board and city-council meetings.)

Byford persisted in his warnings, stating that reducing the 440 clean-diesel-buses procurement from Nova would result in “less predictable of an outcome than going with a known order, with a known price, with a known manufacturer and a known technology right now.” He added that changing the contract and delivery dates for buses could result in poorer bus service for Toronto.

remarkable email was included among the documents I received in the TTC’s response to an FOI request.

The email is dated Sept. 6, 2017 -- the day after the meeting at which the board made a sudden leap into procuring green-bus-technology, and more than two months before the TTC reported on the pros and cons of various options.

In it, TTC's Vehicle Programs head Bem Case tells Mike Macas, who is TTC’s Senior Manager, Vehicle Engineering -- Bus Maintenance, “I think we do need to focus on BEB. As you’ve said, going forward cost is not the main driver -- ZEBs [zero-emission buses -- another name for BEBs] are the goal and we need to understand TCO [total cost of ownership] of BEB, etc., not hybrids or CNG [compressed natural gas].”

No coincidence

According to records found by searching the Toronto Lobbyist Registry, BYD lobbied the offices of two people -- Minnan-Wong and Toronto Mayor John Tory -- leading up to the September 5 board meeting.

The company also has lobbied extensively at the provincial level in Ontario and at the federal level. The company’s lobbying goes all the way up to many provincial and federal ministers, the premier, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Privy Council and the senate.

On November 14, 2017, the news broke that BYD plans to open an electric-truck-assembly plant in Ontario in 2018. Less than three weeks later, then-Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne visited BYD headquarters in China to trumpet their collaboration.

(There do not appear to be any records of Proterra, New Flyer or Nova lobbying at the city level, nor of New Flyer or Nova lobbying at the provincial level in Ontario. In March 2018 Proterra -- which manufactures both electric buses and electric-bus chargers -- began lobbying Ontario MPPs, the Ontario premier and federal ministers.)

Toronto transit expert Steve Munro sounded the alarm about the discomfiting events that were unfolding. His blog entry on Sept. 5, 2017 is titled, “Is A TTC Bus Technology Gerrymander In The Works?” He added more information in a Torontoist article a few days later.

Subsequently, after doing my own research, in October, I submitted a complaint to TTC Chair Josh Colle about the strange proceedings at that Sept. 5 TTC board meeting.

Colle did not respond.

Therefore, I and two others submitted a complaint to the Auditor General of Toronto in November and to the Auditor General of Ontario in May. Neither has responded to date.

Part two in Rosemary Frei’s investigation can be found here.

Photo: TTC’s Vehicles Program head Bem Case by Rosemary Frei

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