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Washington Transit Agency Goes Electric, Adds New Tech to Buses

The retirement of four buses is giving Walla Walla Valley Transit the opportunity to upgrade its service vehicles.

(TNS) — With their trolley-inspired designs, Valley Transit buses don’t look like technological marvels. But while the old-timey aesthetic will stay, the public transportation entity is making plans for high-tech upgrades next summer.

Valley Transit will retire four of its oldest buses and replace them with battery-powered electric models. Around the same time, it will roll out a number of new digital features to help riders and staff keep track of their buses.

The new buses will be bought for $700,000 each from BYD Motors, a Hong Kong-based company with its North American headquarters in California, said Dick Fondahn, Valley Transit’s general manager. They can travel about 150 miles on a single charge, and will have charging stations the service center on Rose and Avery streets and its transfer station in downtown Walla Walla.

The buses cost about $100,000 more than natural gas-powered buses and $200,000 more than diesel-powered ones, Fondahn said. He expects the higher cost of new buses will be made up over their roughly 15-year life by saving about $250,000 each on fuel costs.

“Over the last two years, the technology for battery-electric vehicles has improved by leaps and bounds,” Fondahn said. “They’re very quiet, and they will still look fairly close to our existing diesel trolley fleet. I think that most people won’t notice the difference.”

Bus, passenger tracking

New vehicles aren’t the only thing on the horizon for Valley Transit. It and 17 other transport operators have contracted with Connexions Ltd., a “smart transit” company” that will make improvements to bus information systems, benefiting passengers and operators alike.

In Walla Walla, riders will have access to a smartphone application that will display the locations of buses and estimated arrival and departure times. Riders will also be able to use the app to plan routes across several transit networks.

Automatic vehicle location is nothing new internally for Valley Transit.

“We’ve had the technology in our buses since 2002, primarily because we use it in our dial-a-ride system,” Fondahn said. “We’ve never had a way to take that information and share it with our customers. So that’s what this project does.”

Fondahn added that the app will save people long wait times for buses and allow them to quickly look up any transfers they need to make. An additional feature of the app designed to help visually impaired people will make an audible announcement when passengers are nearing their stop.

All these features, Fondahn said, are aimed at making bus riding more convenient and intuitive and giving passengers some peace of mind while waiting for or riding the bus. He also pointed out that maps could be updated in real time if routes or schedules change because of construction or rerouting, both of which affected Valley Transit service throughout 2016 and 2017.

As part of the same project, Valley Transit will install automatic passenger counters, which use beams of infrared light to tally the people getting on and off its buses.

“Part of accepting federal transit funds is that we have to turn in an annual ridership report,” Fondahn explained. The tracking hardware removes the need for drivers to count passengers themselves.

Opt outs — for now

The project also offers a few features for transit systems that Valley Transit has opted out of — at least for now. Among these is a function that would send information about buses’ mechanical workings directly to bus mechanics, making repairs easier.

That’s not terribly useful to Valley Transit at the moment, Fondahn said, since buses are rarely more than a few miles from their garage on Rose Street.

“If we lived in a city ... where the bus was farther from our base, it would be a bigger priority for us,” he said. “In Walla Walla and College Place, the bus is really never very far from our maintenance facility.”

Valley Transit may rethink that opt-out when it comes to the new buses, since keeping tabs on a battery life could be useful, Fondahn said. Another passed-up feature is digital farebox integration — unnecessary since Valley Transit uses cash fares only on its buses.

Fondahn is stoked about the coming improvements.

“It’s fun to be able to take this technology and make it accessible to our customers in a convenient way for them,” he said.

©2017 Walla Walla Union-Bulletin (Walla Walla, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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