Problems with Metro Transit Electric Buses Show the Technology Isn’t Ready for Primetime

Last week the Star Tribune ran an article entitled “Metro Transit Temporarily Pulls Electric Buses from C Line Because of Problems with Chargers,” stating the eight electric buses on the newly-formed C Line would be taken out of service until defects with the charging mechanisms could be fixed. Diesel-powered buses will continue service on the line.

According to the article:

“The 60-foot electric buses, manufactured by New Flyer of America in St. Cloud, were supposed to charge overnight and then stop for a quick 12-minute charge at the Brooklyn Center Transit Center while in operation. But issues surfaced with the electric fleet’s charging equipment.

It’s unclear what the problem is. Padilla referred questions to New Flyer and said he couldn’t predict when the electric vehicles would begin service again. The company’s Canadian-based parent, NFI Group Inc., could not be reached for comment Thursday.”

Absent from the story on electric buses were the issues of cost and reliability. At a price tag of $1.2 million per bus, electric buses cost $400,000 more than their diesel counterparts. This means Metro Transit unnecessarily spent an additional $3.2 million on the electric buses that now need diesel buses to carry their water.

Reliability problems have rendered the story on electric buses throughout the country to be mixed, at best. According to an article in CityLab:

“So far, it looks like BEBs struggle when it’s too cold (below freezing) or too hot, and on routes with hills.”

We have seen electric vehicles struggle with Minnesota winters. A study from AAA found electric cars lose up to 40 percent of their battery life when the temperature is 20 degrees above zero. The useful battery life declines even further when the temperature dips lower, which is problematic when people are relying on public transit to get to work in the morning and to get home at night.

The problems associated with electric buses prompted the city of Albuquerque to return the electric buses they had purchased, according to CityLab.

“Albuquerque recently made headlines in the urban public-transit world when the municipal transit agency, ABQ RIDE, returned the BYD-made electric buses it had ordered, finding them deficient. The city had paid $1.2 million apiece for these buses, and after it returned them, it bought diesel buses from New Flyer for $870,000 each.

A source who has worked on Albuquerque transit projects and spoke to CityLab on the condition of anonymity detailed the circumstances around the failed BEB trial. Albuquerque is a typical Sunbelt city with low urban density and little historical transit ridership. With plentiful free parking nearly everywhere, few people ride the bus. But one bus corridor is prominent: Central Avenue, cutting east to west across the city. About half of ABQ RIDE’s ridership is on this corridor, so it became a priority for bus-rapid-transit upgrades as part of a program called Albuquerque Rapid Transit, or ART.”

Needlessly spending an additional $3.2 million on electric buses that don’t work as well as diesel buses is just one example of the senseless waste state and local government officials partake in to appear “green.” This willingness to allocate scarce resources to more expensive, less useful forms of transport is an abdication of the responsibility local officials assume when they take office.

State and local governments exist to solve state local problems, not tackle global ones. As these entities fixate more on problems that are completely outside of their control, they neglect the problems that they truly can influence. This is probably why violent crime in downtown Minneapolis is on the rise, and despite millions of dollars in additional education spending, math and reading scores continue to decline.