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News Track: Iowa City looking to expand electric bus fleet
4 electric buses have brought ‘significant’ savings and emissions reductions
IOWA CITY — Four electric public buses have been rolling through Iowa City for nearly a year and a half — and there are efforts in hopes of expanding the fleet.
Iowa City Transportation Director Darian Nagle-Gamm said while it’s been a learning experience, the department is pleased with the roll out. She said there already have been significant cost savings and emission reductions in the first year.
The four Proterra electric buses hit the streets in January 2022 and replaced four diesel buses. They were purchased with the assistance of a $3.3 million in grants — $3 million from the Federal Transit Administration and the remainder from the Iowa Department of Transportation.
Introducing electric buses into the fleet was a “huge leap forward” for the city and transportation in general, Nagle-Gamm said in January 2022. The city’s Climate Action Plan identifies embracing electric vehicles and increasing transit use among the strategies to reach its goals, including having net zero emissions by 2050.
In the long-term, the city plans to replace more diesel buses with low or no-emission buses, Nagle-Gamm said. Not only is it part of the Climate Action Plan, but she said it’s also what the community is asking and it makes financial sense.
What’s happened since
Over the course of the year and a half, the electric buses have made their way through all of the city’s bus routes, except for Route 10 West Iowa City because the electric buses are too tall to go under the low-clearance railroad bridge on Iowa Avenue.
“It was really nice to be able to get them out to all parts of the community so everybody has an opportunity to ride the new electric buses,” Nagle-Gamm said.
Nagle-Gamm said bus drivers have picked up on the nuances of driving and operating the electric buses. For example, the bus doors operate differently than diesel bus doors. The city has heard from riders that the buses are quiet, clean and ride smoothly.
Nagle-Gamm said the transportation department is continuously learning about the electric buses and how to solve issues as they come up, including properly closing the doors and reading the panel display when a service signal pops up. Proterra has been a great partner in helping troubleshoot issues effectively and efficiently, she said.
Nagle-Gamm said the buses performed normally in the winter, but just didn’t get the range they do in the spring. They need to be replaced on route sooner during the winter.
The spring is the time of the year when the electric buses have the best range, Nagle-Gamm said.
“That's because, as we all know, batteries lose some of their performance as the weather is colder, and as it warms up and we get into the summer, then we turn the air conditioner on the buses and that uses some of that energy,” Nagle-Gamm said.
Nagle-Gamm said there are “clear and significant” cost savings and carbon dioxide reductions with the roll out of the four electric buses.
The city spent about $565,000 in total fueling costs in 2022. The electric buses make up 15 percent of the city’s fleet, but only 2 percent of total fueling costs.
It costs 98 cents a mile to fuel a diesel bus and 23 cents a mile to power an electric bus, Nagle-Gamm said. This means, on average, the city spent $3,500 to power one electric bus over the year, compared with $24,000 to fuel one diesel bus over the same period.
“That's 85 percent savings, which is significant,” Nagle-Gamm said.
The city also saw a significant drop in emissions with the addition of the four buses.
“Making the transit system not only work better for the public in terms of the service and how we provide the service but also in terms of providing a sustainable vehicle choice … will go a long way toward meeting the city's climate action goals,” Nagle-Gamm said.
The city has applied for additional grant funding to pay for four more buses, which would bring the fleet total to eight. The city will find out this year if it is awarded the funds and can expand.
“We're looking forward to being able to expand the fleet and expand the benefits that we're seeing from introducing electric transit service to the community,” Nagle-Gamm said.
Eight is the total number of electric buses the city can have at the current transit facility with the existing electrical infrastructure, Nagle-Gamm said. The city has a total of 27 buses in its fleet.
“Past that point, we do have plans to continue our expansion in the future, but we are also actively pursuing federal grant funding for a new transit facility,” Nagle-Gamm said.
Nagle-Gamm said the current facility is “at the end of its useful life” and the age and condition of the property won’t allow for further fleet expansion.
Nagle-Gamm also expects the batteries available on electric buses to keep improving.
“As we begin to see batteries improve — like with our next round of buses if we were to win a grant award this year — they have higher capacity, so we would expect that we will get more range out of an equivalent electric bus with the next round.”
She anticipates this to be the case until electric buses can travel just as long as a diesel bus can.
Regarding lessons learned, Nagle-Gamm said having the infrastructure in place to support electric buses is important.
“We got ensnared in some supply chain issues along the way in terms of delivery of our final equipment,” Nagle-Gamm said, adding that the department has been using temporary equipment in the meantime. The permanent equipment will charge faster and allow the department to optimize charging its electric buses, Nagle-Gamm said.
“We're very excited to begin the second year on our permanent equipment,” Nagle-Gamm said.
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