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TransLink's return to natural gas buses criticized

The last compressed natural gas buses TransLink bought were these low-floor models in 2006.  - TransLink
The last compressed natural gas buses TransLink bought were these low-floor models in 2006.
— image credit: TransLink

TransLink plans to buy more compressed natural gas (CNG) buses that it shunned for years and Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan is questioning whether the reversal is politically motivated.

The transportation authority has more than 50 CNG buses, some dating back to the 1990s, but it rejected new purchases for years after concluding they weren't cost-effective due to high maintenance costs and other problems.

In the mid-2000s, the then-elected TransLink board wavered several times on which fuel type of bus to buy while being heavily lobbied by dueling industry groups.

Corrigan wonders if the private unelected board has embraced CNG to please the provincial government as it promotes natural gas exports as a key to B.C.'s future.

"Is this about politics, about provincial government pressure to ensure that natural gas buses are here because we market so much natural gas worldwide?" he asked at a Metro Vancouver meeting Oct. 9.

TransLink executive vice-president Bob Paddon said the decision to buy 54 new natural gas buses, using federal gas tax funds, was a staff recommendation, endorsed by the board, not a decision forced down from the board.

He said early CNG buses were "very problematic" but the technology has improved dramatically and the much lower price of natural gas today has made it very attractive.

"Right now our assessment is the CNGs are a good replacement rather than purchasing new clean diesels."

Paddon, who chairs the Canadian Urban Transit Association, said several other transit agencies are now looking at CNG.

"There's just a much stronger business case than it was 10 years ago," he said.

A 2012 efficiency review of TransLink also recommended it expand the CNG fleet in light of better life cycle costs.

Replacing old diesel buses with compressed natural gas will cut particulate and nitrogen oxide emissions by 90 per cent and greenhouse gas emissions by 15 per cent, according to TransLink.

TransLink also plans over the next three years to buy dozens more diesel-electric hybrids, which Paddon said are ideal in urban traffic where electric trolleys can't run.

He noted regular diesels are still also needed for some routes because the advantages of electric hybrids are lost on long highway runs.

All-electric non-trolley buses are also on the horizon, Paddon said, likely available in as little as three to five years.

TransLink can only refuel natural gas buses at its Port Coquitlam bus depot, but that capability may be extended to depots in Surrey and Richmond.

BC Ferries is also moving to power some of its ferries by natural gas.

Corrigan contends that running a wide range of buses of different fuel types drives up costs, making CNG an unwise experiment in light of the past problems.

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