Ending the TTC's dependence on spewing, belching buses is turning out to be a far rougher ride than green transit types bargained for. When the commission recently opted to replace 250 of its aging buses with new diesel models, the Sierra Club of Canada went into overdrive. Citing new evidence that 13,600 Canadians will develop cancer as a result of exposure to diesel emissions, the group warned that even the new high-tech "clean diesel' vehicle is more polluting than than its natural gas competitor.
But the TTC's head of operations, Bill Brown, says he has no intention of buying more natural gas vehicles - 125 of the city's 1,500 buses are fuelled by natural gas - because at $525,000 a piece they are too expensive (compared to $450,000 for diesel) and they're unreliable. Burnt valves that cause the engine to backfire and lose power, he says, seem to be a recurring problem.
"Every burnt valve takes a week to repair and costs $10,000," Brown explains. The manufacturer picks up the tab for that, but there are other reasons that the TTC is turning its back on natural gas buses. They have a shorter range and for safety reasons cannot serve routes with underground stops like St. Clair West and Davisville because they could leak methane in an enclosed space.
"Ultimately, I don't think we can afford to continue with the fleet," Brown says, adding that that the TTC would have to buy another fuelling garage for $8 million if it ordered natural gas buses. "We can't think of anyone who would buy them. They're not in demand, that's for sure."
Perhaps Sacramento, California, or Hamilton would take them. All Sacramento's buses are natural gas because bylaws protecting the environment make it illegal to buy diesel. Around the lake, the Hamilton Street Railway likes them so much it's considering boosting its natural-gas-powered fleet from 60 to 100 per cent.
Hamilton Street Railway (HSR) maintenance manager John Hamilton says that as long as the buses' spark plugs are tuned, they run smoothly for 20 hours a day. "The technology has changed quite a bit since then," he says.
It seems that the city of Hamilton's commitment to fight smog meant it was willing to work through early problems. Toronto, which received the province's alternative fuel bonus, wasn't.
But greening transit is proving as much a motivational and financial challenge as it is a technological one. While the Sierra Club says natural gas buses emit less particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide than diesel, others aren't so sure they are the cleanest option.
At Orion Bus Industries, the Mississauga company that has supplied both the diesel and the natural gas buses to the TTC, Mark Brager points out that natural gas buses emit non-methane organic compounds that are 12 times more harmful to the ozone than carbon dioxide. So green-minded commuters must either ride a bus that is worse for global warming or one that's worse for local smog, cancer and lung disease.
"Sometimes the two emissions standards (local and global) compete,' says University of Toronto mechanical engineering prof Jim Wallace.
Still, the Sierra Club insists investing in natural gas will position the TTC well for the wave of the future - hydrogen.
The TTC's Brown scoffs. "My guess is that it'll never happen."
But in Winnipeg the future is now. There, commuters ride the government-funded "zero-emissions" prototype hydrogen fuel-cell bus. But at nearly $2 million per bus, should we hold our breath?