Electric bus pilot project may be down the road for VTA

Stacey Rupolo

The Martha’s Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) is exploring the idea of using electric buses. An alternative fuels study, conducted by the Vermont Energy Investment Corp. (VEIC) for the VTA in June, proposed that the Island enter into a two-year pilot project to gain experience with electric buses and understand both the opportunities and challenges associated with them.

“The goal certainly is to reduce emissions and to make it as pleasant an experience as it possibly could be to travel on a bus,” Lois Craine, VTA assistant administrator, recently told The Times.

Diesel and gasoline continue to be the primary transportation fuel used in the United States. In the U.S. transit industry, roughly 75 percent of all transit vehicles are powered by diesel or hybrid diesel-electric engines, while electric transit vehicles are considered an emerging technology, making up about 1 percent.

According to the Alternative Fuels Assessment and Feasibility Study, the VTA currently has no electric buses in the fleet; of their 38 vehicles, 32 run on diesel and six on unleaded gasoline. The report said that the VTA plans to replace 22 vehicles over the next five years.

As the VTA explores alternative fuel options, VEIC identified a four-step plan to replace the 22 buses. One step is the electric bus pilot project, and depending on the outcome, the VTA could potentially build an electric fleet. Other steps included suggestions that they continue to invest in clean diesel technology, and look to foster partnerships on-Island to develop renewable natural gas.

In August, the BYD (Build Your Dreams) Co., headquartered in Los Angeles, brought a battery-powered electric transit bus to the VTA offices for a demonstration for staff and board members. VTA administrator Angela Grant told The Times this summer that there’s a lot to like about electric buses, but that the VTA was “just looking.” Ms. Grant said that they were considering electric buses for the park-and-ride routes, because the range the bus can travel before needing to charge is about 155 miles.

This speaks to one of the challenges in using electric buses: Schedules would have to be adjusted for longer routes, to allow for charging time, “because our service day is long,” Ms. Grant said. “The first bus pulls out of here on Route 13 at 5:15 am, and the last returns at 2:42 am.”

But there are many benefits of electric vehicles, according to the VEIC report. They are more efficient and have lower operating costs, which can offset the high cost of the vehicle and the infrastructure associated with it. Powered by an electric motor that is fueled by energy stored in a battery, they are cleaner and quieter when they’re running.

The batteries are charged by connecting to an electrical source — either wirelessly or by plugging in. Wireless charging, known as induction charging, uses magnetic charge plates that are located under the road and inside the bus, so when it drives over one, an electric current flows to charge the battery on the bus.

If the VTA decided to pursue the pilot project, VEIC estimates the cost would be roughly $500,000, which includes $450,000 for the vehicle and about $50,000 for installing charging equipment. The cost of the bus is roughly $90,000 more than the cost of a similarly sized clean-diesel bus; however, fuel costs savings over the bus’ 12-year life cycle are estimated at $84,000.

A vehicle in the VTA must meet a number of requirements. With its current fleet, a bus has to be able to operate for up to 300 miles a day on a single fueling, hold up to 70 passengers, be able to accelerate into traffic with a full passenger load, be able to navigate narrow and congested streets, and drive at a relatively low speed.

If the VTA decided to purchase a fleet of electric vehicles, the cost to size up from one pilot vehicle to seven is estimated at $3.7 million. This includes $2.7 million to purchase six electric buses, assuming the 2016 price of $450,000 per vehicle, and between $500,000 and $1 million to install wireless on-route charging systems.