Chilmark selectmen hear VTA’s $18.4M plans for electric bus fleet

“Go big or go home,” VTA administrator told selectmen; she hopes VTA initiative might inspire other Island transport services.

Selectmen heard from the VTA administrator about replacing the current fleet with electric buses. —Edie Prescott

Chilmark selectmen were surprised and admiring Tuesday of plans outlined by Angela Grant, the Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) administrator, to replace the transportation fleet she runs now with electric buses.

The planning is underway, and so is the search for funding, a large chunk of which Ms. Grant says she hopes will come in an $18.4 million grant from a Volkswagen $1.2 billion fund, part of its Clean Air Act settlement with the EPA.

The VTA went through an alternative fuels assessment in the spring of 2016. “We all know that diesel has been, up until about six years ago, extremely reliable,” Ms. Grant said. “When the engines changed and the emissions standards [changed], things got a little bit more complicated, especially for transit buses, which are stop-and-go-stop-and-go-stop-and-go. We’ve struggled with reliability with those newer buses, and that’s really the driver for us to look at other fuels.”

And diesel buses are noisy, but there is a 30-foot long, 96-inch-wide electric transit bus that came on the market a few years ago from a company called Build Your Dream (BYD).

“It screams VTA all over it, really,” Ms. Grant said, because of the Vineyard’s roads. This bus is being used with the Stanford University and Facebook corporate campus fleets.

Ms. Grant told selectmen she likes the BYD buses because the bus should last 12 years, and the battery is guaranteed to last the life of the bus. If something were to go wrong, it would be a liability of the manufacturer, not the VTA. She also mentioned the VTA is not too interested in doing a pilot program, and instead just wants to commit to implementing it: “It’s a lot to put out there without committing in full.”

Initially, the first four buses purchased could be charged at the VTA main building (which has a two-megawatt storage capacity), but to expand service over the years to Menemsha, for example, would require the buses to be able to charge en route, while loading and unloading — such as at West Tisbury town hall.

“It can work. We just need the money to make it work,” Ms. Grant said.

The VTA has applied for an $18.4 million portion of the $1.2 billion reward money available from Volkswagen, which the transit authority intends to use for Island-wide infrastructure at eight charging locations.

The new electric buses will cost $150,000 to $200,000 more than a diesel bus, but the maintenance is estimated to be 50 percent less than with diesel. Ms. Grant said that for her 53-vehicle fleet, which includes vans, that maintenance is about $300,000 a year.

Ms. Grant hopes to see the first electric bus in the VTA fleet in spring 2018, followed by three more during 2018 and 2019.

A 35-foot bus costs about $700,000 to $750,000, a 30-foot bus about $550,000. “The inductive charging piece adds about $80,000 [to the cost of the electric bus].” The bus battery lasts about 170 miles, and Ms. Grant believes the park-and-ride runs in Tisbury and Edgartown could run all day without a charge.

She said she estimates it will be as long as five years before an electric bus makes its way to Menemsha, which would require an in-route infrastructure setup to charge, as that route runs 225 miles a day.

“The project you described today is bigger than I knew, and I applaud your effort,” Warren Doty, chairman of the selectmen, said. “Everybody in Menemsha would be extraordinarily pleased if there is an electric bus going down and coming back.”

In other business, representatives from the Martha’s Vineyard Fisherman’s Trust asked selectmen if the town would give them one acre of the eight the town owns near the Chilmark dump for fisherman to use to store their equipment.

Selectmen have long concluded that this eight acres near the dump should not be encouraged for residential use, worried that the close proximity to the dump may compromise the drinking water.

Selectmen liked the idea, and were even more enthusiastic when the Fisherman’s Trust president, John Keene of John Keene Excavation, offered to clear the acre for free.

James Malkin was “volunteered” by Warren Doty to work with the group, and establish a rough drawing of their plans. Part of the eight-acre plot may be a place for highway department and shellfish department storage, a one-acre firemen’s training site, and a spot for a new fire safety building — but nothing is in stone yet.

Three town maintenance projects

Selectmen also approved the hiring of three contractors for three different projects in town. Chilmark custodian Rodney Bunker listed the jobs and the vendors he recommends. The three projects are to paint the library, washing the shingles on the basketball-court side of the Chilmark Community Center, and replacing the chimney in the town hall building, not including the “sleeve.”

Tri-Town Ambulance funding formula change

Last, selectmen approved a new funding formula of “75/25” for the Tri-Town Ambulance reserve funds. The formula was previously “80/20.” The change allows the group to build up its reserve funds to make ambulance purchases, one every three or four years, over time. This takes money away from the operating budget, and shifts it to the reserve fund. The lost operating-budget money can be made up in increased assessments to the participating towns or from tax surplus.

This is an amendment to the Tri-Town Ambulance Inter-Municipal Agreement, to increase the percentage of income set aside for capital improvements from 20 percent to 25 percent.