Metro Transit wants more electric buses despite problems

They cost more, run low on power, and spend a lot of time in the shop. But Metro Transit still insists electric buses are just the ticket to save the environment, if not taxpayers. The agency used Earth Day as a vehicle to highlight the continuing transition to a fleet of electric buses, despite a series of mishaps and setbacks that have plagued the vehicles from the start.

KARE-TV detailed some of the bumps in the road in an experiment that’s hardly electrified anyone with the results.

So far, Metro Transit only operates eight electric buses and eight charging stations, which were purchased as part of a pilot program in 2019. A series of problems with the chargers and the bus mechanics meant the buses sat largely idle for more than a year. 

Metro Transit COO Brian Funk acknowledged the technology presents some issues, particularly in a cold climate. For one thing, electric buses have a range of less than one-third of the workhorse hybrid buses in the system.

“We’ve had some problems back in our garage, with some of the charging equipment, but our manufacturer has stood behind it. They replaced that equipment. Now we’re seeing higher reliability, we’re getting the charges that we expected.”

“…Can a bus today do everything we ask it to. The simple answer is, not yet. This bus, right here, can travel between 90 and 100 miles in a day. We have buses that we ask to travel 300 miles in a day, and so we’re not able to do that quite yet, but we think and the technology is proving out, that it’s advancing to get us closer and closer on an incremental basis.”

Along with all the practical problems, electric buses also run hundreds of thousands of dollars more per vehicle. Nevertheless, Metro Transit’s Funk hopes to order another 100 battery-operated buses, adding tens of millions of dollars to the cost of public transportation.

“Right now, this 60-foot bus is about $400,000 more than the diesel buses that we purchased at the same time. However, we’re hoping that we start to see — between fuel savings, maintenance costs — that we start to bring those closer together as the technology matures.”

To fulfill its goals, Metro Transit will need to rely on a combination of federal infrastructure money and budget support for the state legislature to add buses and expand the footprint, and reliability, of the charging stations inside bus garages. 

But it turns out there’s still a chance that fiscal sanity will prevail at Metro Transit after all. When asked what Metro Transit would do if legislators started asking tough questions, Funk responded:

“That’s why we’re going into this in a phased approach and that’s what is outlined in our transition plan, is to say that we haven’t made up our mind of what 100% of our buses are going to be.”