When financial people mention “sunk costs,” they refer to expenditures that cannot be recovered.
Almost 15 years ago, BC politicians learned the investment of hundreds of millions for fast-ferries had to be reclassified. If the PacifiCats had not themselves sunk, their costs had. That outcome provided a field day for government’s political opposition and their media allies.
BC is soon to finalize another financial disaster involving a transportation fleet and it also was a pet project of an overenthusiastic Premier. There is a difference though; the bus fiasco attracted little attention from BC’s political reporters and commentators. Having written an excellent article a year ago, Brian Hutchinson of the National Post is an exception.
Prior to the 2010 Olympics, Gordon Campbell decreed the “hydrogen highway” would become a reality. With support from his Californian pal, The Governator, Campbell imagined the alternative fuel route would extend from Whistler to San Diego by 2010. His government issued a press release celebrating “the arrival of the first bus of what will become the world’s largest single hydrogen fuel cell bus fleet today.” It went on:
The arrival of ‘Bus 1’ of the hydrogen fuel cell bus is a major step forward as we work to build a Hydrogen Highway that stretches from Whistler to Victoria and beyond,” said Premier Campbell. “This fleet will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1,800 tonnes per year in B.C. and it will showcase British Columbia’s expertise in cutting-edge hydrogen and fuel cell technology to the world.
If those words sound familiar, it is because the NDP had a similar idea that building aluminum ferries in BC would showcase the province’s cutting edge skills in high speed ship construction.
Today, the 20 hydrogen fuelled buses are in storage while BC Transit searches for buyers. These units reportedly cost four times as much as diesel buses but capital costs accounted for less than half the program budget. Operating expenses were unusually high, partly because hydrogen had to be trucked in from Quebec. Repair costs were substantial compared to standard buses because vehicles were not suited to the conditions.
Hutchinson quoted Ben Williams, president of Unifor Local 333.
The hydrogen buses don’t run properly in the cold Whistler environment,” he said Tuesday. “You’d think someone would have considered that, before any cash was spent.
Yes, you’d think that but spending other people’s money is just so damn easy when it’s for the boss’s flavour of the day.
There have been a stream of “ticking bombs” crossing Canada in the form of diesel trucks carrying hydrogen to fuel the Whistler bus fleet. Was truck operation safe and free of fatalities? Were GHG emissions from production and transport of the clean fuel higher or lower than what a battery equipped hybrid fleet might have created while it shuttled around Whistler?
At least the fast ferry project aimed at creation of jobs and skills in British Columbia.
The decision to end the hydrogen project does not please everyone. Former BC Transit Chair Eric Denhoff complains, saying the buses should remain as a demonstration project, “Even if there was a bit of additional cost to running these things.” (CBC quotes Ballard Power as saying the per kilometre cost of hydrogen bus operations is double that of diesel.) Denhoff denies this was a failed experiment and maybe he’s right.
Denhoff knows about Skytrain and Canada Line from his days as an SNC Lavalin official. Those have served as demonstration projects for the world, demonstrating how not to build mass transit systems. Sure enough, just about everyone everywhere did something completely different.