Graham Kilmer

County Looks to Add Electric Buses

County applies for federal grant for electric buses, though head of MCDOT not a fan.

By - Jun 3rd, 2019 11:58 am

Electric bus. Photo by Ryanmirjanic [CC BY-SA 4.0 (].

Electric bus. Photo by Ryanmirjanic [CC BY-SA 4.0 (].

After receiving approval from the County Board, Milwaukee County is officially applying for a $1.7 million federal grant to purchase four battery-electric-buses, taking the first step towards building an electric bus fleet

If the county receives the grants, it must match the funds. The combined fund would then purchase four buses for a pilot program so the county’s Department of Transportation can study the implementation of the buses within the system.

There are a number of question marks for the county board and the department of transportation regarding battery electric buses, or BEB’s, and their viability within MCTS. Members of the board’s Finance and Audit Committee questioned the viability of the BEB’s during the summer and winter months at a May 16 meeting. And testimony from a Milwaukee County Transit System mechanic only fanned uncertainty from the committee.

So if the county gets the federal funds, the department of transportation and Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) will study, “how they operate, are they efficient,” said Donna Brown-Martin, the Milwaukee County Department of Transportation director. The fact that the county would have to match the federal funds adds gravity to the committee’s unanswered questions.

Brown-Martin is not enthusiastic: “Not a big proponent of electric buses, but we’re doing what is asked of us,” she told the committee. Still, she said the county won’t have the information it needs to move towards an electric fleet without the pilot program. That program is largely thanks to Board Chairman Theodore Lipscomb, Sr. During the budget process for 2019, Lipscomb added an amendment that forced Milwaukee County along the path towards electric buses. At the time, Lipscomb explained the need for action on an electric fleet this way: “If we don’t get started we’re never gonna get there… I mean this is gonna take 15 years.”

Daniel Teatr, a chief garage steward with MCTS, provided testimony to the committee on potential problems the county may encounter with BEB’s, having spoken to officials and mechanics from transit agencies that have added BEB’s to their fleet. He said BEB’s have trouble when weather reaches the extremes of hot and cold that Wisconsin experiences in the summer and winter, throwing their reliability into question. He also mentioned that maintenance of the BEB’s might require keeping a bus out of operation to be used as a parts car, suggesting maintenance of BEB’s could be more involved than for a hybrid or diesel bus.

Though some concerns about BEB’s were expressed at committee, at the full board meeting on May 23, every supervisor except Sup. Dan Sebring voted to apply for the grant. And, in a statement reminding colleagues of the board’s stated policy via the budget amendment, Lipscomb said, “We should probably get some grant funds since we are buying electric buses.”

Transit agencies throughout the country are introducing electric buses to their fleets. Some quite ambitiously. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, the local transit agency, Metro Transit, is planning to gradually phase 125 buses into their transit system by 2022. 

In King County, Washington, home to Seattle, the Federal Transit Administration and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory conducted a 12 month study of a pilot program for BEB’s. This study does not definitively conclude whether BEB’s are the way to go. Rather the study found areas where BEB’s produced more favorable data than diesel, hybrid or trolley cars, and others where it did not.

One area in the study where BEB’s fell short is in fuel cost. When the electricity is measured using the diesel-gallon-equivalent, the fuel cost was nearly five times as much.  Fluctuations in the price of diesel fuel already has the power to kick a hole in the MCTS budget. 

The BEB’s also had the lowest rate of miles between road-calls, meaning electric buses go fewer miles than diesel or hybrid buses before some type of failure requiring a replacement bus on the route or a “significant delay in the schedule.” They also had the lowest baseline availability, which measures the days the buses were available compared with days they were scheduled for operation. The availability for BEB’s was 80.6 percent, compared with 90.5 for hybrids, which had the highest availability.

BEB’s outperformed diesel and trolly systems but not hybrids in average mileage per bus. But BEB’s did outperform every bus type in fuel economy. BEB’s also had the lowest maintenance per mile cost, by a significant margin, than both diesel and hybrid.

The weather and temperature were factors in the King County study, but did not correlate with significant operation issues for BEBs. The winter bring with it lower fuel economy and higher electricity rates. In fact, ambient air temperature correlates closely with fuel economy. As the temperature rises, the fuel economy also tends to rise. And Milwaukee has lower average temperatures in the winter and only slightly warmer summers than Seattle.

Beyond the performance of the buses, there are some structural challenges for transit agencies, like MCTS, outlined in the King County study. For example, operators require specific training for the unique docking procedures. Keeping the chargers for buses running is important, as down-time on a charger can cause serious delays. Finally, the operation and scheduling of the buses is intrinsically linked to infrastructure, like charging stations, throughout the system.

But by the end of the study period King County Metro was already increasing the operation of its BEB’s. And since then, the transit agency was satisfied enough with their performance to purchase 20 new BEB’s.

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