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Electric bus idea seems hasty

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  |  Posted: Wednesday, Jul 09, 2014 06:00 am

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With interest I read the article regarding the trial with the electric bus in St. Albert (Gazette, July 2). Although it is understood that a major driver of exploring this option is to help decrease carbon emissions, it seems to me that we are looking at a high cost alternative that won’t efficiently meet the needs of St. Albert commuters.

I find it strange that we haven’t started with the basics before we start looking at the higher end solutions of pollution control before we look at systems that would have a significant fiscal impact on the St. Albert taxpayer. For example, take notice of the near empty 40 plus foot St. Albert buses travelling around the suburban routes, one can almost guarantee that the load factor of that bus (percentage of seats occupied) is lower than 25 per cent even during peak hours. This suggests that the city has opted to go with the more fuel inefficient vehicles rather than purchasing smaller, lower cost yet more fuel efficient vehicles such as the airport shuttle buses. It can be argued that smaller buses would continue to meet the occupancy needs of St. Albert suburban routes without risk of maximizing the load factor for at least the next ten years. It is important to note that I am not referring to the buses that are coming out of the depots during peak hours that support intercity transport thus typically having a higher load of occupancy at least during peak hours.

So it seems that the city is once again leaping before they think. First, electric buses offer a significant number of problems that I am not confident have been considered as part of this review process. Electric buses are just that. They should not be confused with hybrid buses. Electric buses are solely powered by batteries which are typically high maintenance. Given that they don’t have a diesel or gasoline back up as a hybrid offers, these buses present what is known as “range anxiety”. Just like an electric car, they can only go so far on a single charge and that charge is considerably lower than the range of a fossil fuel engine. This means there will have to be recharging stations set throughout the city at considerable cost so the buses can regularly recharge. Evidence in other cities is already demonstrating that the time for recharge is mandating additional buses to ensure schedules are met. Also, what if a bus is behind schedule. Right now a bus arriving late can immediately start the leg of its next route to make up for lost time. The requirement for an electric bus to frequently recharge suggests an inability to make up time thus leading to poor schedule reliability; something that is already problematic. I would also be curious of the reliability given the extreme cold weather we experience in Alberta. I would suggest that running the trial during the warmer period of summer is flawed and that these trials should be conducted during the colder weather. As many of us can attest, batteries do not perform well in cold weather.

It is my contention that the city should consider taking baby steps. For example, using more reliable natural gas or hybrid engines. These would offer the benefits of helping the city reduce its carbon emissions and operating costs while ensuring an equitable balance of service reliability. This would be deemed a short term solution while waiting for the system to design more reliable and longer range electric buses that the city could then migrate to should a future business case warrant. At this time, the electric bus is no more economical overall than the current buses, whereas natural gas or hybrid options are beginning to demonstrate higher cost savings for other transit systems throughout North America. Given that the city of St. Albert has one of the highest (if not the highest) tax brackets in all of Alberta, dare I say Canada, I believe it behooves our city council to find the happy medium of controlling our carbon footprint while reducing, not just maintaining, the already high operating costs of our transit system.

Connie Huffman, St. Albert


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