Did the federal and provincial funding kill the hope for an electric transit fleet ?

SwP thumbnail graphicBy Pepper Parr

September 10th 2020



When funding is given to a municipality it rarely comes as a surprise.

More often than not the city and the funding body work with the municipality work out what is available and what it can be used on.

The Member or in Burlington’s case the Members of Parliament are heavily involved.

MMW at transit funding Sept 8

Mayor Meed Ward leading the announcement of new transit equipment. She had them dancing about the funding before they all went home.

Thus the decision to lay millions of dollars on the city is something that was worked out between the federal government, the province and the city. The Region had nothing to do with this one.

The question that popped into my mind was: What does this mean to any electrification of the Burlington Transit fleet.

Every bit of professional advice Director of Transit Sue Connor got was that it was not possible to operate a fleet that was electric AND diesel. Not with the money that is available to Burlington transit. Everything about electric is different.

You have to go all in if you are going electric.

The charging stations needed to ensure that the bus batteries don’t fail are a million dollars each. It looked as if Burlington was going to need two of them.

Also on the table was the use of nitrogen as the propellant. There is a very strong argument for nitrogen over electricity.

Sue Connor at mike

Director of Transit Sue Connor

Sue Connor brought in a speaker who took council through the nitrogen argument explaining that Canada was at that time a bit of a leader in applying the use of nitrogen to transit.

Adding 12 diesel buses to the fleet does help Connor in meeting the demand that she hopes will come back.

Just before the covid shutdown took place transit was reporting double digit rider increases.

How quickly that ridership returns is an unknown at this point.

The 12 new 40 foot buses and the five conventional buses to replace vehicles in the fleet now are to be acquired over a three year period.

Perhaps Connors can hold getting those buses and make them electric when she does purchase.

Connor, AVK and Gould - bus money

Director of Transit Sue Connor looks on while the political set announce that she is going to get 17 new buses over a three year time frame. None were to be electric – does this kill her dream of an all electric transit fleet?

When Sue Connor was brought on board she made big changes at transit. There are people on staff there now who moved from other city departments to work at transit.

Connors has made the necessary changes; prior to her arrival there was some pretty incompetent leadership.

At one point a former Director of Transit had suggested that the terminal on John Street be closed and that bus tickets be bought at city hall (which closed at 4:30) or at local convenience stores around the city.

Problem was none of the convenience stores wanted to be bothered.

A lot of really stupid decisions were made before Connors took the wheel. Let’s hope that the senior levels of government that made the funds available have not killed the idea of an electric fleet for Burlington Transit.

Salt with Pepper is the musings, reflections and opinions of the publisher of the Burlington Gazette, an online newspaper that was formed in 2010 and is a member of the National Newsmedia Council.

What makes politicians dance: a funding announcement.  Watch them do it.

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5 comments to Did the federal and provincial funding kill the hope for an electric transit fleet ?

  • Ben Tuinman

    Seems to me, that the size of the present busses are way too big. Besides implementing electric powered vehicles, which is the future, why not purchase smaller size vehicles, since our busses in Burlington seem never full….in fact I see many pass me with 1 or 2 passengers on board. Just thinking….

    • Collin

      Every time Burlington (and other municipalities, such as Oakville) have tried smaller buses, there have been no cost savings. In fact, adding another type of bus to the fleet increases maintenance costs. Smaller buses have also been shown to have a shorter service life.

      Have you ever ridden on a smaller bus that is full? Yes, it does happen, and it happened to me a while back. There were fewer than 30 people aboard one of the new, smaller buses that were added to BT’s fleet a year or so ago but it was completely crammed and extremely uncomfortable.

      We all see buses with only a few people aboard. If you ride a bus, you know that there are also times when the bus is very busy. We also see roads with only one or two cars on them.

      • Ben Tuinman

        If we were to accept your argument that adding other types of vehicles add to the cost, so be it! At some point we need to electrify our transits, since it is the sensible way to go. Climate warming needs to be addressed at all levels, and our City (the best medium size City in Canada in which to live, remember?) should be leading the pack here. An argument could be made about the size of the vehicles, but there might be routes that would be better served with smaller ones. My humble opinion! Regards.

  • Chris Ariens

    It’s interesting that nearby cities of similar & even smaller size including Guelph, Kingston, Oakville and Durham Region have all used this tranche of senior government funding to start the process of converting their fleets to electric. Meanwhile, for the next 3 years, Burlington is going to be acquiring additional diesel buses and has shifted the conversion to electric to some unspecified “long-term” future.

    Most of these cities also received considerably more funding than Burlington did. I’m not sure of the funding formulas but believe they are tied to ridership levels.

    It would appear that Burlington Transit’s strategy is to increase ridership first, so that our share of future senior government funding goes up in future and the funding becomes available to support the conversion. Of course there are risks – will that senior government funding be available in the future and will the additional buses lead to a transit system that is improved enough to grow ridership significantly? There’s still a lot of work ahead in bringing about a grid-based system that runs buses with the frequency and directness needed to make the bus a competitive transportation option in Burlington. One of the city’s best and most productive routes, the 10, was recently changed into a loop that takes twice as long to travel between Appleby GO and downtown, exactly the opposite of what we need to do. So I’m not that optimistic that Burlington Transit will pull this off. The free transit for children and seniors will be a big help, their impact on funding programs like this one will easily outweigh the reduced revenue from fares.

    The Ford government is also tying funding to the much touted but potentially disasterous implementation of micro-transit like Uber/Lyft for underserviced areas, like they have done in Innisfil. For that model, more demand for transit actually works against it.

    • Collin

      If funding levels are tied to ridership, we can thank the old Council for ensuring Burlington did not receive its fair share. Their cutbacks led to a significant drop in ridership that Burlington Transit was only beginning to recover from when COVID-19 hit.

      The reversion of the number 10 to its old route last year did not double the time it takes to travel from downtown to the Appleby GO. The trip now takes 24 minutes, as opposed to 18 minutes before the change. I agree that it’s an inconvenience for a lot of commuters, especially where transfers at Appleby GO are concerned. But it does give residents of southeast Burlington a dependable bus service. The ideal situation would be for the southeast to have its own route, but it’s always a question of what you can do with the money you have. If Burlington is serious about responding to climate change, the new Council would put less money into scrape-and-pave projects on little-used crescents and courts and use the savings to improve transit.