Dave Wardrop has ridden the future and the future is electric.
The Winnipeg Transit boss said electric batteries are the likely future fuel source for the city's buses.
"As a developmental technology, electric is at a relatively mature state within the industry and appears to offer a potential attractive pricing point," Wardrop, Transit's director, said. "Electric propulsion technology also offers environmental benefits over other alternative fuels such as compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG)."
Wardrop will get a better handle on the capabilities of electric battery-powered buses when he gets four of them next year as part of a long-term pilot project with New Flyer Industries, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Manitoba Hydro and the provincial government.
The four electric-powered buses will arrive late next year.
Wardrop said the experimental vehicles will be incorporated into the daily schedule for two to three years -- demonstrating to Transit, bus builder New Flyer and Mitsubishi what they're capable of doing.
A prototype of the electric bus was driven onto the legislature grounds a year ago, when New Flyer announced plans to develop the new technology.
"I had a ride on the prototype model," Wardrop said. "The ride was smooth and exceptionally quiet."
New Flyer is the largest manufacturer of transit buses in North America, with a market share hovering between 35 and 41 per cent.
It already produces several alternatives to diesel buses, including diesel-electric hybrids, as well as clean diesel and compressed natural gas-powered engines. It has seen sales of its hybrids soar from zero to 40 per cent of total output in seven years.
Mitsubishi is supplying the lithium-ion rechargeable batteries that will power the buses, placed inside New Flyer's Excelsior model, a 12-metre unit the company describes as its most advanced platform.
Mitsubishi has built electric buses in Japan but was looking for a North American partner. It came to do business in Winnipeg because of New Flyer's large presence in the North American market.
The $3-million cost of developing the prototype is being split equally between the province, Manitoba Hydro and Mitsubishi.
Transit spends $18 million every year on diesel fuel -- the equivalent of 32 new transit buses.
Wardrop told the finance committee Thursday that while there are several alternative-fuel operating systems -- hydrogen cell, electric-fuel hybrids, overhead electric -- it's prudent to wait to see which emerges.
But he'd bet on electric. "We want to make sure we get it right."
The experimental buses fit into the new, modern image Transit has been projecting. A digital-fare card system is about to go online, replacing traditional paper tickets and transfers.
Transit will put the first four of 20 articulated ("bendy") buses on the road in November for training purposes and into the regular service shortly afterwards.
Low-floor, accessible buses have been part of the fleet for years.
Wardrop said Transit's overhaul has paid off with ridership increases that outpace the city's population growth.
"In the last six to eight years, we have seen ridership growth in the three per cent per year range, which is double the growth of the city itself, which is about 1.5 per cent," Wardrop said.
Ridership was at a low point 10 years ago, Wardrop said, adding since then ridership has grown 30 per cent.
"We're grabbing market share from the automobile, which is a great thing for Winnipeggers," he said. "There has been a greater appreciation of some of the service provisions provided by Transit -- the convenience of the service, the electronic information systems... and some of the comfort amenities."
Transit has added two to three buses annually to its fleet but expects that to jump to eight buses, beginning in 2016.
Wardrop said he expects the rapid-transit corridor will generate some of that growth as the new residents of Waverley West become Transit riders.
Transit has 565 buses in its fleet and that will soon increase by 20 with the addition of articulated, "bendy" buses. The eight-year-old articulated buses were among 200 that were taken out of service by Ottawa's transit agency.
Wardrop said New Flyer Industries offered Winnipeg Transit the 20 best of those 200 at the discounted price of about $50,000 each. To extend their lifespan, Transit will only use them during morning and afternoon rush hours, for concert and sporting events.