Cities across North America are working toward two ambitious goals: ensuring transit systems meet the needs of growing populations and, at the same time, reducing the carbon footprints of those systems. Fortunately, there are government incentives to support this work and, with the right partner, both goals can be met.

The Canadian government has allocated $33 billion to the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program while the U.S. government has passed the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework. Both programs specify funding for modernizing public transit systems by making both vehicles and maintenance facilities more environmentally friendly.

In Vancouver, for example, TransLink is planning to replace more than 400 diesel buses with battery-electric vehicles by 2030. Winnipeg Transit wants to have 110 battery electric and hydrogen fuel cells on the road by 2027. And the U.S Department of Transportation says that the number of battery electric buses on order or operating across the country rose 112% between 2018 and 2021.

While the move to electrification requires new technology on the buses themselves, it also requires new technology in and new ways of thinking about transit garages. The facilities where buses are stored and maintained will need, at the very least, major retrofits to handle the vehicles and their specialized equipment; in some cases, entirely new buildings will be needed.

PCL Construction has a long track record of building transit facilities across Canada and the United States, including projects that house alternative fuel vehicles. PCL’s in-house experts get involved in the preconstruction phase to ensure design features will translate into the finished product and to address potential challenges before they become costly and time-consuming to fix.

“What really differentiates PCL’s work in transit maintenance facilities is our ability to drive added value through all aspects of the project,” says Derek Pearce, senior construction manager for PCL in Edmonton. “We deliver excellence by building and fostering long-term partnerships with our clients and approaching every project with their best interests at heart. Through quality, best value and experience we successfully deliver our projects. When our clients succeed, we all succeed.”

Parked side by side, electric, hydrogen and compressed natural gas (CNG) buses are almost indistinguishable from their diesel predecessors — you’d need to open a side panel to see the difference. The same is true for low-carbon transit maintenance facilities that service alternative fuel vehicles. They may look like their forebears, but when you open the garage door, you’re peeking into the future.  

Municipalities want the facilities that go along with alternative-fuel vehicles to also achieve low- or zero-carbon emissions ratings. To meet this goal, every square inch of the facility needs to be optimized. Strategies can include a combination of solar, geothermal power and high-performance building envelopes.  

Installing kilometres’ worth of electric cable, fibre optic cable and alternative fueling infrastructure for hydrogen or natural gas to service these buses is only part of the challenge. Proper ventilation and air conditioning systems are essential to keep these facilities from overheating — but still present major hurdles on the path to net-zero emissions.  

“At PCL, we put our technical focus and experience to work on these transit facilities,” says Blair Trigg, manager of building systems for PCL in Edmonton. “Knowing that hydrogen fuel cell and battery electrification is here, our technical experts collaborate early in preconstruction to coordinate with the utility providers and related building services and equipment. We also bring leading innovations to the table to help offset any impacts on the grid, always working to optimize the facility’s sustainability. Whether it is solar power or geothermal, we have extensive experience delivering these facilities with innovative net-zero techniques.”   

At the Roam Transit Operations and Training Centre in Banff, Alberta, PCL was contracted to design and build a facility where electric buses could be stored and charged. Being involved in the preconstruction phase allowed PCL to understand the Town of Banff’s sustainability priorities for the project and plan accordingly. Today, the building is one of the greenest in Banff. With its connection to the district biomass heating system and a large solar array, it earned a Zero Carbon Building Certification from the Canada Green Building Council.

PCL teams worked with Roam to understand their day-to-day operations, which resulted in the design and installation of charging cables in the facility’s ceiling space with remote-controlled cord reels. This keeps the cables clear of the garage floor and eliminates a dangerous tripping hazard.

Meanwhile, in Calgary, PCL designed and built the Stoney CNG Bus Storage and Transit Facility, the largest indoor CNG bus fueling complex in North America and the first facility of its kind in Canada delivered as a public-private partnership. The 500,000-square-foot facility features 36 maintenance bays, two cleaning bays and on-site CNG fueling systems. 

By collaborating with stakeholders to make informed decisions at every step, the Stoney CNG facility became only the second project in Canada to achieve LEED v4 Gold certification. Adjacent wetlands and environmental reserve areas were incorporated into the site boundaries and stormwater management ponds were added as habitats for at-risk species. An innovative top-down ventilation system protects workers from noxious fumes.

“Constructing high-quality facilities to maintain and store these innovative public transportation systems is what's needed now — especially once you add alternative fuels and electrification to an already complex system,” explains Mohammed Al-Halimi, manager of civil operations with PCL Construction in Toronto. “Municipalities are pursuing emissions reduction and net-zero transformation incentives being offered by governments at every level, which drives the need for new technologies and innovation that can provide optimal value and realize benefits for owners and riders within these transit facilities. This puts PCL in a unique position as we have the expertise to build these advanced transit facilities.” 

As municipalities keep up with the impacts of climate change, they are looking ahead and focusing their public transit budgets on building energy-efficient infrastructure that integrates bus, light-rail transit and subway systems. And PCL is ready to help build that future together.

“At the end of the day, we’re leveraging decades of experience and lessons learned while also keeping at the forefront of emerging technologies. We’re focused on driving value to our clients through every phase of project delivery, working as partners to stretch every municipal investment dollar to the max,” Pearce says. “After all, we’re also the people who live in the communities and municipalities we’re working to enhance and protect, which lends a heightened sense of purpose to this critical work. Tackling the challenges of building resilient infrastructure that sustains our cities is what fuels my passion every day.”