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TriMet slow to board electric bus bandwagon
TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane says he's all charged up about all-electric buses, which he believes are the future of the agency's bus fleet.
Some local activists, however, say greater Portland's regional bus and rail operator should put a bit more surge into its efforts. The agency is lagging behind other cities' transit agencies that either have committed to an all-electric future or are part way there, according to research by the Portland Tribune.
TriMet has long touted itself as being an environmental leader, but it has sat on the shoulder while the new battery-powered buses have been hitting the pavement in cities across the nation. Only recently has that started to change with TriMet's plan to buy five new electric buses, assisted by a federal grant.
Not only are the new buses quieter, but the electric propulsion eliminates diesel bus exhaust that can have harmful health effects. As many as 460 Oregonians die prematurely due to diesel pollution each year, according to a report by the Department of Environmental Quality — a risk that falls disproportionately upon Portland, which has some of the most diesel-polluted air in the country.
Click here to read the Portland Tribune's accompanying story: Agency still relies on dirty diesel fleet
"Technological transitions are all about ... finding the right time with the right technology," says McFarlane, who has lead TriMet since 2010. "We're sometimes a little bit conservative about the technology we adopt because we have such an important mission for those people who rely on our system."
Doug Allen, a transit advocate who worked at TriMet for 35 years, has been pushing the agency to consider all-electric technology instead of diesel for its next big expansion on Southeast Division Street, a project that will employ longer buses and fewer stops. The 14-mile Division Transit Project plans to improve travel between Portland and Gresham. Service will begin by 2021.
"There seems to be a disconnect in (TriMet) policy regarding battery-electric buses, which are rapidly becoming a more mainstream item," Allen says.
Five electric buses will hit Portland pavement by 2018, by way of a federal grant and a partnership with Portland General Electric.
TriMet had struck out on two low-emissions grants in previous years, only finally scoring $3.4 million last year from the Federal Transit Administration.
TriMet hired a consultant, the nonprofit Center for Transportation and the Environment, to plan the project and track the new electric buses' performance.
Dan Raudebaugh, the center's executive director, says the project will help TriMet contemplate the very different job of running electric buses. The buses need to be stocked with enough batteries, but no more, depending on their route. Hills and hot or cold weather can affect how long the buses go without a charge. Agencies need rapid recharging options or extra buses in case a bus can't finish its route.
None of those factors are an issue with diesel buses, which constitute the overwhelming majority of TriMet's fleet.
"You're giving them a different animal altogether," Raudebaugh says of TriMet's foray into battery-powered buses. "Being smart about how you get involved is warranted."
TriMet has been burned before on technology. In 2006, when TriMet tried to boost its biodiesel to a 10 percent blend, bus filters started clogging up, creating engine problems. Plans to boost that number to as high as 20 percent were dropped, and today the TriMet buses emblazoned prominently with the word "biodiesel" actually use the same fuel every other diesel user does in Oregon — the standard 5-percent blend sold at gas stations.
Similarly, hybrid-electric buses TriMet bought in 2003 were not reliable and did not perform well, officials said.
McFarlane says that's one reason why he prefers to be cautious with new technologies. "Sometimes the promises aren't quite realized. Occasionally there's been manufacturers who might overstate the benefits of their products."
TriMet plans envision sticking with diesel buses through 2025, but say the goal is to move to electric buses as soon as feasible.
"If we're behind, it's not by much, and it's not for lack of interest," McFarlane says. "But it's, I think, focusing on putting good foundational work in place first."
Other agencies go further
However, other agencies are showing less hesitation. Antelope Valley Transit Authority in northern Los Angeles County is purchasing more than 80 battery-electric buses and plans to be all-electric by 2018.
Another California agency, Foothills Transit, has vowed to be all-electric by 2030.
Seattle's King County Metro King County Metro has three electric buses on the road now. They plan to purchase 120 electric buses by 2020. Eight will go into service this year and 12 more in 2019.
Jeff Switzer, a King County spokesperson, says the buses have performed well, and the plan to buy more "underscores our confidence in the evolving technology."
Eugene's Lane Transit District hopes to have 10 percent of its fleet powered by battery-electric buses in two years.
"We're a few steps ahead of TriMet," said district spokesman Edward McGlone. "Y'all got your fancy bridges up there in Portland, but we got our electric buses."
"We feel really comfortable right now, actually, that the technology is where we need it to be to operate a fleet of buses," says Mark Johnson, the Lane district's assistant general manager for service delivery.
Raudebaugh agrees that the technology is there.
"I think that right now is the time to jump in," he says.
Pros and cons
Cost and health are important components to agencies looking to acquire electric buses.
Electric buses come with a hefty price tag, sometimes $200,000 to $300,000 more than a diesel bus, which costs around $470,000. Adding more of an up-front burden is the necessary charging equipment. Charging equipment and construction-related infrastructure costs can range from $60,000 for a plug-in charger, up to $1 million for an on-route fast charger that can be used by multiple buses throughout the day, according to New Flyer, the manufacturer of the buses TriMet plans to purchase.
Although the buses are pricey, they could save in other areas. A study by Columbia University solicited by New York City Transit on bus fleet electrification estimated that the benefit to citizens from the reduction of respiratory and other diseases is estimated at $150,000 per diesel bus eliminated, based on United States Environmental Protection Agency data.
"When you (operate) a diesel bus, the emissions are in the city and then whatever it's putting out gets into our air, and that's what we breathe. Whereas with electricity, even if you're burning coal, those power plants by design are placed outside of the city," says Dr. Linda George, a professor of environmental science at Portland State University. "So you have the potential of reducing carbon dioxide emissions if you use electricity."
Activists, officials favor electric
Bus activists like Allen and John Carr of the group Portland Clean Air have been testifying for months at public hearings, urging TriMet to use the more than $100 million in federal funding expected for its Divison Street project to buy 60-foot electric buses.
In local government meetings, their views have gained some traction.
During discussion of the Division Transit Project at a Portland City Council meeting in December, Mayor Charlie Hales said, "To build another project and rely on diesel buses, I think, would be a very unfortunate outcome."
Later that month, in a county board meeting, those statements were echoed by Chair Deborah Kafoury, who called the Division project "a great opportunity to look at the potential for using electric buses."
In the wake of the local officials' input, TriMet officials say they're committed to exploring electric buses for the Division Street Project, but it's unclear what they'll conclude.
At the TriMet board's December meeting, chairman Bruce Warner seemed as wary of emerging technology as McFarlane does.
"We want to do it when it's ready and when it's proven," Warner said. "That doesn't mean we shouldn't be on the leading edge. I just don't want us to be on the bleeding edge."