Graham Kilmer

MCTS Still Not Using All Its Electric Buses

MCTS only operating five out of 11 BEBs on a daily basis.

By - Feb 1st, 2024 10:22 am

MCTS Battery Electric Bus. Photo Courtesy of MCTS.

The Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) is only running roughly half of the battery electric buses (BEBs) it purchased for the new bus rapid transit (BRT) service.

After a recall of the buses in August by the manufacturer, NovaBus, the transit system is still only operating five of them daily, according to David Locher, enhanced transit manager for MCTS. Ideally, there would be nine running every day, he told the Milwaukee Common Council‘s Public Works Committee on Jan. 24.

The transit system ordered 11 BEBs from NovaBus, a Canadian subsidiary of Volvo Group, to operate on the Connect 1, a new nine-mile bus rapid transit service running east and west between Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa. The BRT service is the first of its kind for MCTS. The service cost $55 million to develop and employs dedicated bus lanes, elevated bus stations and transit technologies like off-bus fare collection and BEBs. Currently, however, the majority of buses operating on Connect 1 are clean-diesel buses like those being operated throughout the system.

MCTS also ordered 4 BEBs to operate on other fixed-bus routes as a pilot for a broader electrification of the fleet. Shortly after the Connect 1 launched, the company announced it was exiting the U.S. manufacturing market, with plans to close its manufacturing and delivery facility in Plattsburgh, New York by 2025.

So far, MCTS has received 11 BEBs from NovaBus. Delivery of the remaining four buses is expected this year.

On June 1, MCTS launched Connect 1. Before the month was over, the MCTS needed to replace a battery unit on one of the BEBs. On Aug. 24, all of the transit system’s BEBs were pulled from the road for a full recall and replacement of the batteries by NovaBus. During the recall, nine buses were sent away and all have returned with new batteries.

At the time, MCTS said the buses were being pulled out of an “abundance of caution.” Transit officials said it was not required that they pull all the buses from the road; rather, the buses were pulled from service to prevent any anxiety about their safety. “Perception is reality and we did not want to spook anybody,” Locher said in September.

The transit system is currently in the middle of planning a second bus rapid transit service that will run north and south along 27th Street from one end of the county to the other. BEBs are being considered as a potential transit technology for the new service. “But they’re not the only thing on the table,” Locher told council members. “And we hope, later this spring, to have clear direction from the county as to what vehicle we’ll be actually pursuing.”

County transit leaders have already told members of the Milwaukee County Board that BEBs remain an unproven technology, and, with NovaBus’ departure from the U.S. market, they are unsure where they would place future orders. Other major BEB manufacturers have had bus failures, filed for bankruptcy or found safety issues with their technology, as Urban Milwaukee previously reported.

“So there are no manufacturers that we would currently be able to work with to provide those buses,” Denise Wandke, MCTS managing director said in November.

As the reliability of existing BEB technologies is called into question, their cost also becomes another, perhaps larger, question for policymakers. One BEB costs $1.2 million, roughly the same as two clean diesel buses. And the transit system has struggled to maintain its fleet levels in recent years, as Urban Milwaukee has reported. The system currently has a fleet of 307 buses. That figure includes the 11 BEBs that have been spottily used over the past eight months.

Before the transit system agrees to more BEB purchases, Locher said, it is “taking a deep, hard look” at how they have performed so far.

Update: This story was updated to include information from MCTS on BEB deliveries and battery replacements.

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