British Columbia is set to grow its electric bus fleet by 115 vehicles thanks to a combined investment of nearly $400 million from the provincial and federal governments.

Along with the purchase of these battery electric buses, the investment, announced July 26, will allow BC Transit to install 134 charging points across the province.

“It's great news that we're getting more zero-emission buses on the road,” said Nate Wallace, clean transportation program manager at Environmental Defence. Transportation is one of the country’s biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, so getting more people out of fossil-fuelled cars and into public transit — particularly low-emission transit — is a win for the climate.

“When it comes to public transit, B.C. has been doing it right, especially compared to other provinces, in the sense that their emissions-reduction strategy with public transit so far … [is] they want to both electrify the fleet and also shift travel demand out of cars and to get more people to take transit,” Wallace said.

Doing so requires “a lot more funding for service,” he added. During the COVID-19 pandemic, B.C.'s investments in transit operations have been, on a per-rider basis, the most generous in the country, meaning service cuts were minimal compared to other jurisdictions, said Wallace. In March, B.C. Premier David Eby announced a $479-million grant to help ensure TransLink’s $20-billion, 10-year expansion plan stays on track.

The result of such investments, Wallace said, is that “ridership for B.C. transit systems have been kind of outpacing the rest of the country” in its recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Ontario, on the other hand, has not covered the Toronto Transit Commission’s budget shortfall, and services are suffering.

Right now, Quebec is leading the pack in terms of adopting electric buses. In May, the province — in partnership with the federal government — purchased 1,229 electric buses from Canadian manufacturer Nova Bus. Quebec’s Green Economy Plan says 55 per cent of city buses must be electric by 2030. It also requires all new bus purchases by a public transit agency funded by the Quebec government must be zero-emission buses from 2025 onwards.

“That is great policy,” and other provinces and the federal government should follow suit, said Wallace, noting certain regions may need longer deadlines. The federal government’s objective is to put 5,000 zero-emission public transit and school buses on the roads by 2026.

In May, B.C. released a consultation paper on medium- and heavy-duty zero-emission vehicles (like transit buses, school buses, fire trucks, tractors and semi-trucks, to name a few ) that proposes 50 per cent of new bus purchases between 2026 and 2028 be zero-emission buses, with 100 per cent of purchases being emission-free in 2029 and beyond.

“It's great news that we're getting more zero-emission buses on the road,” said @climateNate, but so many public transit agencies strapped for cash and need additional funding to help get those buses in service and operate their services.

While the federal government is helping provinces with the up-front costs of buying new electric buses, it does not lend a hand with operating costs to ensure these vehicles actually get put into service, said Wallace.

“What we've been saying is just don't just fund the zero-emission bus, fund the zero-emission bus and also fund putting it into service,” he said, adding that doing so is “crucial to overall emissions reductions.”

Two years ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to provide permanent funding of $3 billion per year for public transit projects in Canadian communities starting in 2026-27. On July 24, the federal government published a summary of feedback it received from Canadians, provincial and municipal governments, transit agencies and experts on the proposed permanent public transit fund. This what-we-heard report will help inform the permanent funding program and highlighted the need for stable funding, region-specific solutions, better governance and transparent decision-making.

It did not discuss operating funding, to Wallace’s disappointment.

The best way to get more people to take public transit is to make the service more frequent, more reliable and more timely, all of which hinges on having enough money to operate those services, said Wallace. “That's the No. 1 way to grow ridership and get people out of their cars, which is the biggest climate impact, far more than electrification.”

—With files from Abdul Matin Sarfraz

Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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