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Whatcom County, Wash., Transitioning to Electric Buses

More electric buses are coming to Whatcom roads — the question is how many and when as the Whatcom Transportation Authority continues to work toward a bus fleet that produces no planet-warming emissions by 2040.

(TNS) — More electric buses are coming to Whatcom roads — the question is how many and when?

The Whatcom Transportation Authority plans to work toward a bus fleet that produces no planet-warming emissions by 2040, according to its WTA 2040 Long Range Plan.

But achieving that goal is not as simple as immediately ditching all buses that run on polluting diesel and replacing them with electric buses, said Maureen McCarthy, the transportation authority's director of community and government relations.

"It does take careful planning for the transition," she said. "It's actually very complicated."

WTA's recent order of eight new diesel-powered buses has brought the transit authority under the scrutiny of some local and state leaders: U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen sent a letter to WTA's Board Chair Michael Lilliquist on May 10 questioning the order for fossil fuel-powered vehicles, given WTA's "strong commitment to fighting climate change."

Vehicle emissions are Washington's largest contributor to greenhouse gases, which drive climate change. Fossil fuel-powered vehicles also take a toll on local air quality — transportation contributes almost a quarter of the air pollution in the state, according to Washington's Department of Ecology.

The Whatcom Democrats approved a resolution in April calling on WTA to reverse its order of diesel buses and only purchase electric buses moving forward. The resolution — which cites the urgency of climate change and points to communities in California and China that successfully operate electric buses — also calls on the State Legislature to set electrification targets for local transportation authorities and establish a grant program to fund the work.

But WTA Chair Lilliquist said that the high-profile bus order has been misunderstood by many: The order as currently placed is simply a placeholder intended to lock in lower vehicle prices before scheduled increases. The order can be revised any time before September.

"The idea that we ordered eight diesel buses is a misunderstanding," said Lilliquist, who is also a Bellingham city council member.

A September deadline should give the transportation authority's board time to review a preliminary draft of its developing "Zero-Emission Fleet Transition Plan," which will map out the organization's future vehicle purchases and is expected to be finalized by early 2023, Lilliquist said.

There's an "excellent chance" that a number of the eight buses recently ordered will be electric, although it's very unlikely they will all be, Lilliquist said.

"That is a $4 million or $5 million bump in cost," he said of purchasing eight electric buses.

What it takes to go electric

Electric buses cost about $1.1 million, plus the roughly $140,000 price tag of a charger and the cost of installing it. Depending on the site, charger installation can range from $150,000 to over $500,000, according to McCarthy with WTA. The upfront cost of a diesel bus is about $600,000.

The transit authority has about 62 fixed-route buses in its fleet, eight of which are hybrid, meaning they run on both diesel fuel and electricity. The hybrid vehicles get about 7 miles per gallon, while the diesel buses get about 5.5 miles per gallon, McCarthy said.

In 2021, the organization got its first two battery-powered electric buses.

The two electric buses are experiencing technical difficulties, but the hiccups are not a cause for serious concern, McCarthy said.

"This is not unique," she said. "Because it's such an early generation of buses coming off the manufacturer floor, there are just growing pains with the technology."

The transportation authority's hybrid buses posed similar operational challenges for about 18 months after they were first adopted in the early 2010s, but they now perform very well, McCarthy said.

The agency plans on testing the electric buses on all routes, to see which are the best fit, McCarthy said.

There are not currently electric paratransit buses on the market, McCarthy said. Paratransit serves those with disabilities who cannot ride on WTA's fixed-route buses. McCarthy has high hopes that Vicinity Motor Corporation's new electric bus manufacturing facility in Ferndale could possibly be a future supplier of electric paratransit buses.

WTA has the parking and conduits, or electrical pathways, for 12 electric buses, and two more should arrive in Whatcom by January, with the help of a state grant. WTA primarily funds electric bus purchases with government grants, and Board Chair Lilliquist urged Rep. Larsen to help the agency secure funding in an email response to the legislator's May 10 letter.

"I urge you and your colleagues to continue to offer financial support to public transit agencies like WTA, in order to meet national climate action goals," Lilliquist wrote.

Larsen said he will request $2 million for WTA in an earmark in the next federal budget, Lilliquist said. WTA continues to pursue grant funding for electric buses, but federal programs are "oversubscribed," McCarthy said.

"In truth, there just hasn't been enough money to go around," McCarthy said, noting that WTA's federal grant applications are typically scored highly by reviewers.

A balancing act

WTA faces a constant balancing act when determining how to use its finite resources, said Melissa Fanucci, principal planner at the Whatcom Council of Governments.

"You can't take away the fact we need more environmental improvements," Fanucci said. "We also need more service to dependent populations, and there's only so much money."

Lorena Shah, assistant director of Community Programs at Opportunity Council, said that the nonprofit feels strongly that "electrifying buses is a step toward reducing urban air pollution in areas of high bus traffic, like around Sunset and other parts of town with high-frequency buses."

Shah pointed out that low-income people and people of color disproportionately suffer from asthma compared to the rest of the population. Reducing diesel exhaust can help reduce the risk of asthma attacks, Shah said.

Lilliquist said he supports the electrification of Whatcom's bus fleet, but he said that there are actions, such as phasing out natural gas use in buildings, that would result in much larger emissions reductions. He is a proponent of installing more personal electric vehicle charging stations away from people's homes, so they can be confident they will be able to recharge their car when out and about.

"If I was going to fight climate change, electrifying public transportation would be on my second tier," Lilliquist said. "It's just a matter of sheer magnitude and numbers."

Both McCarthy and Lilliquist said electric bus purchases must be well-coordinated with development of charging infrastructure. WTA doesn't want more buses than it can charge, but it also doesn't want to invest in charging stations that end up being outdated by the time the agency obtains electric buses.

"We might lock ourselves into an antiquated charging system," McCarthy said. "When you think about how quickly these things change, we just want to be wise about the sequencing."

Simon Vickery, climate and energy policy manager at local environmental nonprofit RE Sources, said that is just the reality of adopting new technologies.

"I certainly don't want WTA to overspend," he said. "But I'm not hearing that it's overspending, I'm hearing that it's expensive."

Vickery believes that potential changes in charging technology should not prevent WTA from investing in electric buses now. While the technological revolution may make a transition to electric buses uncomfortable, leaders should trust there will be solutions available, Vickery said — electricians can be hired to alter plugs or voltage.

"That level of uncertainty, we just need to breathe through," he said. "We will not get that level of certainty before it's too late."

© 2022 The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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