Clickability tracking pixel

Infrastructure, Testing Behind Chicago’s Electric Bus Delay

Chicago Transit Authority officials say that upgrading to an electric fleet is complicated, and involves not just acquiring the buses but upgrading the agency’s infrastructure to build charging stations.

by Mary Wisniewski, Chicago Tribune / December 23, 2019
Shutterstock

(TNS) — Most Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) customers will have to wait years before riding an electric bus, which offers a quieter, smoother ride that’s also environmentally friendly.

Some other big-city transit agencies, including Philadelphia, Toronto and New York City, already have electric buses carrying customers. Even the transit agency that serves the Quad Cities area in western Illinois has the buses. But the CTA has just two electric buses that are still in testing, with plans to buy additional electric and diesel buses.

Why isn’t Chicago upgrading its fleet faster, when electric buses can save the agency money in fuel and maintenance costs, while also giving the city cleaner air? And why is the agency still planning to buy diesel buses?

CTA officials say that upgrading to an electric fleet is complicated, and involves not just acquiring the buses but upgrading the agency’s infrastructure to build charging stations. It also needs to be sure the buses work in all weather conditions, and over long distances, the CTA said.

“It requires a significant commitment of planning, engineering, design, construction — basically creating a whole new bus system,” CTA spokesman Brian Steele said. “There’s also an equipment, repair, maintenance and training component."

Environmental advocates wish the agency would move more quickly in its quest for a battery-operated fleet, considering the health and climate hazards posed by diesel. Transportation contributes almost 30% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“We need to do more, given the threats we’re seeing,” said Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health policy at the Respiratory Health Association. “I want to see a transition made as soon as possible for a battery-powered, clean bus fleet.”

But experiences at other transit agencies that have tried electric buses show why caution is needed, especially in places that get cold weather, which tends to shorten the distance a bus can go on an electric charge.

Philadelphia, for example, has 25 extended-range electric buses in service. The buses, charged at the garage overnight, had adequate range during the summer months, but haven’t been able to go as far on a charge in cold weather, said Eric Johanson, director of innovation for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, also known as SEPTA.

“We’re starting to think about what are the types of things that can be done to extend the range,” Johanson said. He said he can “completely understand” why Chicago is taking its time.

“Battery electric buses are still in their infancy, in terms of deployment,” Johanson said. “Everyone is trying to figure out what the right balance is, between range capacity of the bus and the capability of the bus to charge overnight, or on an ongoing basis during the day.”

Indianapolis’ “IndyGo” system also found that its electric buses travel lower-than-expected distances on cold days. It has reached an agreement with its bus supplier BYD for wireless charging infrastructure.

In western Illinois, MetroLINK general manager Jeff Nelson said the transit agency will not be able to switch to an all-electric fleet until battery life lasts longer — service time for its 8 electric buses drops to 8 hours in the winter from 10 hours in the summer.

“You can’t get 24 hours, primarily because of the front defroster,” Nelson said.

The CTA has pledged to have an all-electric bus fleet by 2040. Since 2014, it has had two electric buses in testing, but not carrying customers. It has purchased 20 new electric buses from the California-based company Proterra, which also supplied SEPTA and MetroLINK, but the buses are not yet on the streets. The CTA will test them through three seasons before rolling them out for customers on the busy No. 66 Chicago route sometime next year, Steele said.

CTA paid about $900,000 for each bus in the recent order, plus charging stations, for a total of $32 million, Steele said. A new diesel bus costs about $500,000. The CTA said that the electric buses bought in 2014 have saved more than $54,000 annually in fuel and maintenance costs compared with diesel buses, so over a 12-year life span the electric buses could end up being cheaper.

The CTA said it will place an order for another 35 electric buses, probably by the end of next year, using $39 million in federal funds. It also plans to buy between 50 and 400 “clean diesel” buses over the next several years, likely through 2028, spokesman Steve Mayberry said.

Steele explained that the diesel buses are needed to replace old buses. Of the agency’s more than 1,800 buses, close to 1,000 will need to be replaced in the next two to three years, he said. The agency uses both diesel and 300 hybrid diesel-electric buses.

The good news for transit agencies is that lithium-ion batteries for buses have improved dramatically in recent years, becoming both cheaper and more reliable, said Hanjiro Ambrose, a dosctoral candidate at the University of California at Davis who specializes in sustainable transportation.

As batteries have improved, the number of zero-emission buses in the U.S. has grown nearly 37% since 2018, with 2,255 buses now operating, on order or pending order, according to an October report from Calstart, a nonprofit clean-transportation advocate. More than half are on the West Coast, where the climate is gentler.

“I generally see that the cities that have winter have a more conservative timeline,” said Ryan Popple, president and CEO of Proterra.

Target dates for all-electric fleets vary. Los Angeles plans to be all-electric by 2030; Indianapolis wants it by 2035; while New York, like Chicago, aims for 2040. Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she wanted the 2030 goal during her campaign.

Urbaszewski said he found the CTA’s plan to buy up to 400 more diesel buses “extremely disappointing," and doubted that these buses will actually be gone by 2040.

“Our hope is that they minimize diesel bus purchases," said Susan Mudd, senior policy advocate for the Environmental Law & Policy Center, an environmental advocacy group. She said she hopes the CTA is consulting with other cities that are moving faster toward all-electric fleets “to figure out any and all barriers that can be overcome,” as well as to learn from mistakes.

U.S. transit agencies overall have been much slower to convert to electric buses than China, which reportedly has more than 400,000. Popple said this has to do with the nature of China, which is centralized and nondemocratic. If the buses don’t work right in China, riders are less likely to complain, Popple said.

Sam Schwartz Engineering, a transportation planning and engineering firm, is doing a study for the CTA to help it create a “road map” for an all-electric fleet, the CTA’s Mayberry said. Similar studies have been done in Seattle and Los Angeles.

But Urbaszewski noted that the CTA has been studying electric buses for five years already.

“At some point we’re going to have to stop studying this and make a commitment that we’re going to do this,” Urbaszewski said.

©2019 the Chicago Tribune Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

E.REPUBLIC Platforms & Programs