Rochester’s gamble on electric buses fueled by $5.4 million in federal grants

Easy come, but not so easy go. That’s what happened when Metro Transit took a chance on adding eight electric buses to its fleet in the Twin Cities. Politically correct concerns over climate change drove the decision, but the Star Tribune reported things quickly went south from there.

Metro Transit officials said the pilot program involving eight electric buses on the C line arterial bus route has proved challenging. The first electric buses were rolled out to great fanfare in 2019, but the system soon encountered issues with charging equipment. On Tuesday, the electric chargers overheated, resulting in all eight buses being sidelined.

Cold climates like Minnesota’s can also sap electric vehicle charges. The plan adopted three years ago called for half of the area’s new rapid transit buses to be electric. But Metro Transit officials now say electric buses are not a good fit because the new lines cover too much territory, making establishing a network of charging stations challenging.

The city of Duluth faced a similar outcome after going the same route, forcing electric buses onto the streets of one of the coldest places on the continent.

Two months after their unveiling, all seven buses were pulled from service, because their braking systems were struggling on Duluth’s hills, and a software problem was causing them to roll back when accelerating uphill from a standstill. Technicians also determined that Duluth’s cold weather was causing the bus heaters to drain the batteries too rapidly, preventing them from completing a full shift.

Despite the disappointing results elsewhere, the Post Bulletin says Rochester is the latest Minnesota city to take a turn kicking the tires on electric buses anyway. The city council has approved the purchase of two 60-foot electric busses for starters, fueled largely by nearly $5.5 million in federal grants.

Rochester Public Transit intends to place an order for the first two vehicles and charging equipment this spring, with delivery expected in late fall. The move follows several years of discussions and test rides in electric buses.

“This purchase is a big step towards a future in which renewable fuels will play a bigger role in public transit in Rochester,” [Rochester Mayor Kim] Norton said. “I signed the Mayor’s Sustainability Pledge because I understand that decisions like this one can make a substantial positive impact on our environment and the future of our planet.”

While Norton pondered the future of the planet, the two city councilors opposed to the purchase expressed concerns over the sustainability of bus service.

Council member Shaun Palmer raised concerns about taking on the battery-powered electric buses.

“It’s my understanding that electric buses in Duluth and the (Twin) Cities have not worked and they are planning to use diesel (fuel) for heaters in them,” he said.

[City Physical Development Manager Ia] Xiong said the buses Rochester is purchasing are improved models with longer battery life. Additionally, the planned routes won’t be as challenging as the hills in Duluth.

The city’s contract with the manufacturer calls for buying two additional electric buses, depending on how things go. As luck would have it, Rochester’s buses are expected to arrive late this year, just in time for the winter driving season.