Rochester may add electric buses within 2 years

October 3, 2018

Electric buses may be headed to Rochester’s streets, but they will take at least two years to pick up the first rider.

Already approved for one $2.29 million federal grant, the city is waiting for an update on a second grant for a requested $5.2 million.

“We don’t expect to hear anything back until December,” said Bryan Law, transit planner for Rochester Public Transit.

The first grant will fund a charging station along with either on 60-foot bus or two 40-foot buses, Law said.

The second grant seeks four buses — two 60-foot and two 40-foot models — along with a charging station and solar panels.

With the unknown status of the second grant. Law said city staff will wait to request purchases to get the most out of whatever federal funding is received.

The wait means the earliest new buses could be ordered is next year. With approximately 15 months required for delivery, that would put the buses in Rochester during the summer of 2020, with months of preparation needed before they hit city routes in the fall or winter.

However, some Rochester City Council members question whether the timing is right, due to limited data regarding the dependability of electric buses in cold weather.

“I know we are heading in the right direction, but I’m not sure we are there yet,” Council Member Ed Hruska said.

Law said the challenge is in comparing decades of data regarding diesel-powered buses with the limited information on the emerging technology behind electric buses.

“The transit industry is starting to build up that knowledge now,” he said, noting several large cities, including New York City and Los Angeles, have already committed to eventually having 100-percent electric fleets.

While he said Rochester staff isn’t proposing such a move at this point, Law presented estimates that show the federally supported electric buses could reduce city expenses over an expected 15-year lifespan of a bus.

While Duluth is planning to roll out its first electric buses this year as Minnesota’s first cold-weather operator, Law said Chicago has already seen four years with electric buses in cold weather.

Council Member Mark Hickey, however, questioned whether Rochester needs to join the rush to see whether electric buses and the batteries that power them can stand up to Midwest cold spells.

“I don’t see that we should be like a university research project, doing research on electric buses,” he said.

Council Member Nick Campion said he sees value in testing the buses with federal support, noting it can serve other communities pondering a change.

“At some point, we have to contribute to the state of the art,” he said.

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