At its September 5, 2017, Board Meeting, the TTC considered a report recommending the purchase of 440 “clean diesel” buses from Nova Bus, a division of Volvo. This sort of thing would normally sail through because the Board has considered and approved future bus plans at previous meetings. In this particular case, one important aspect of the order is that 325 of the vehicles would be delivered before the deadline for federal PTIF (Public Transit Infrastructure Fund) grants that end on March 31, 2019. A further 115 buses would be procured with the “standard” arrangement for TTC capital financing, but no federal contribution.
This procurement went through a common pattern with an RFI (Request for Information) in October 2016 and an RFP (Request for Proposal) in April 2017. Two proposals were received, one from Nova and the other from Flyer Industries, and both met the technical requirements. The decision to award to Nova Bus was based on pricing (Nova’s bid was $300.5 million while Flyer’s was $345.0 million).
In an unusual move, the Board entertained a last-minute addition to the deputations list, two representatives of a builder of battery buses, BYD. This is a Chinese manufacturer with an office in Los Angeles and, more recently, representatives in Canada. BYD did not bid on this RFP because it specified clean diesel technology which they do not supply.
Their presentation and associated Q&A went on at some length, far moreso than public deputations are normally allowed, and it was quite clear that this was a sales pitch for their product. In any other Board meeting, this would have been stopped as an abuse of process, but this situation was under the charmed support of Deputy Mayor Minnan-Wong who is a member of the TTC Board.
Many claims were made for BYD technology and for the scope of the battery bus industry that went largely unchallenged.
In response, TTC management advised that they would be issuing an RFI for alternative technology buses to four supplies, including Nova and Flyer, later in the week, and that they planned to bring back an overview report to the Board in November.
The situation became more interesting with a motion proposed by Minnan-Wong and eventually approved by the Board with only two votes against that would reduce the contract award to Nova to 325 vehicles and pursue the remaining 115 as a potential for a different propulsion technology.
Another wrinkle was added by Chair Colle (one of the two “no” votes on Minnan-Wong’s proposal). The PTIF funds allocated to Toronto were split between the TTC and the City, and the TTC has found projects that can qualify for this funding. However, the City is unable to spend all of its available funding and is looking for projects that could soak up the shortfall. Colle proposes that TTC management report on what projects might be brought forward for this purpose.
During the discussion, there were comments pro and con the TTC’s becoming embroiled in yet another new transit technology. They have already been burned by the Hybrid Bus fiasco, ironically a scheme they were forced into by a combination of environmental enthusiasm at Council and federal subsidies that were only available for “green” technology. A good deal of that federal money went not to additional buses, but to paying the extra cost of the hybrid vehicles. The BYD reps proposed exactly the same thing for their products – yes, they were more expensive than regular buses, but the feds would pay and the TTC could save money in the long run on operating costs. Of course this approach would negate the ability to buy more transit infrastructure with the federal funding, and of course would not apply to any buses bought outside of the PTIF envelope.
TTC management including CEO Andy Byford made the point strongly that it is staff’s job to get service out onto the road, and the 440 bus order was to allow retirement of the oldest and least reliable vehicles. Battery bus technology is evolving quickly, but beyond some large fleets in China, cannot be said to be well-established in North America or Europe.
It is quite clear that there has been lobbying behind the scenes, primarily to the Deputy Mayor, for several months. Below are snapshots from the City of Toronto’s Lobbyist Registry. (Click to enlarge.)
The lobbyist company, Earnscliffe, is well-known. The initial contact by them corresponds to the point at which the TTC issued its RFP for diesel buses in April 2017.
Any company is free to lobby, but it is quite unusual for this to result in a direct presentation to a Board meeting where a contract award is up for approval. We have learned recently how political meddling has influenced advice and decisions at both Metrolinx and the City of Toronto, and this continues a disturbing trend.
Worst of all, the TTC staff report on alternative technology buses will now be under a cloud. Will it be a technically honest report, or will it be spun to suit the position of a well-connected member of the Board? By giving credibility to BYD’s presentation, has the Board placed TTC staff in the unenviable position of debunking claims made by one would-be vendor? Will there be another round of vendor presentations attacking whatever staff brings forward?
Members of the TTC Board just love to think of themselves as progressive, forward thinkers who will embrace potential transit improvements. One Board member, Councillor De Baeaemaeker, even launched into an attack on “clean diesel” by reference to all of the pollution created by exploration, extraction and refining, while carefully avoiding the fact that a great deal of Ontario’s base electrical load comes from nuclear power. That is where overnight charging would come from, but this delicate point was not part of his thesis.
If the TTC invests in electric buses, regardless of the manufacturer, this will require a garage with very different capabilities from any they now own. A substantial power supply will be needed for all of the overnight charging, and repair facilities will have to be attuned to electric, not diesel, vehicles. The TTC does not have any increase in garage capacity in the pipeline beyond McNicoll Garage, already under construction, and it will easily be the early 2020s before there is a garage where a new fleet could be based, assuming that it is a net addition and not simply a replacement for existing buses. (McNicoll, although a new garage, will simply take the pressure off all of the existing garages which are badly overcrowded.)
The irony here is not lost on those of us who followed the TTC through its abandonment of electric buses a few decades ago when beautiful, clean compressed natural gas was a panacea to solve both our diesel woes and TTC management’s distaste for trolley buses.
Battery buses may well have a future in Toronto and in world transit generally, but the way this has been introduced at the TTC leaves a foul taste, a sense that the fix is already in. Toronto’s transit technology choices have been gerrymandered more than once in the past to suit politicians and businesses looking to cash in on new technology. We have had enough of this, thank you.