Port Authority getting first electric buses, considering fleet for Downtown-Oakland rapid transit

Port Authority expects to have its first two electric buses by September and to begin testing them in anticipation of use on the proposed Bus Rapid Transit system between Downtown and Oakland.

A committee Thursday recommended the authority board approve buying the buses for $2.27 million to test how well they work. The buses will be used for at least a year out of the authority’s East Liberty garage, where two charging stations will be installed, said Don Rivetti, deputy chief of operations for maintenance.

Lake Fong/Post Gazette

The purchase of two buses is a change from plans in September 2017, when the agency said it would use a federal grant to buy one electric bus after funding fell short of its request for five of the vehicles. Mr. Rivetti said the agency delayed the test so it could buy two vehicles at the same time using funds from different fiscal years.

“It’s easier for the organization to test two at the same time so we get more results,” Mr. Rivetti said.

In addition to buying the buses, the agency is expected to issue contracts in the next few months to install two charging stations in the East Liberty garage at an expected cost of less than $400,000. The agency also may use outdoor stations when it has a fleet of electric vehicles, but those cost nearly double the indoor stations, which will provide the information the agency needs for testing purposes, Mr. Rivetti said.

The agency has been monitoring the traveling range of electric buses since 2015, Mr. Rivetti said, and there have been regular improvements. It wants to test how the vehicles operate under local weather conditions that include many months when heating or air conditioning would drain batteries.

For example, the agency wants to find out whether a fully charged bus can run its full daily route after charging overnight or if it will need a break for a mid-day recharge. A full charge takes about four hours.

Current plans for the Bus Rapid Transit system call for using 25 articulated buses that are 60 feet long. The test will involve non-articulated buses 40 feet long, but Mr. Rivetti said the test vehicles will provide the information the agency needs to decide whether to buy more.

The authority expects to have the BRT system about 60 percent designed this year with a goal of being in operation in 2022. The $195 million plan would use electric buses on exclusive lanes between Downtown and Oakland and set up priority lanes at traffic lights to extend service to Highland Park and Squirrel Hill.

It also will provide service to Wilkinsburg via the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway.

The agency expects a decision on federal funding for about half the cost of the project in the next few months, but Allegheny County has said it would find money elsewhere if that isn’t approved.

Electric buses cost more than twice as much as conventional buses initially, but the expectation is that the agency will save money over time on reduced maintenance and fuel costs. In addition, there is almost no air pollution from electric vehicles.

If the board approves, the buses will be supplied by New Flyer. Federal funds will cover most of the cost but there is a 15 percent local match. The price also includes training for drivers and maintenance workers.

Ed Blazina: eblazina@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1470 or on Twitter @EdBlazina.

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