On its inaugural run, Metro Transit’s first electric bus edged forward from the Heywood Garage in Minneapolis with a quiet hum — not the usual diesel-powered roar.
That ceremonial around-the-block ride Thursday welcomed one of eight environmentally friendly electric buses that will fuel the $37 million C Line, a rapid bus route that is slated to begin service June 8.
The 9-mile line will connect the Brooklyn Center Transit Center with downtown Minneapolis, mostly through the city’s North Side.
“Minnesota does better if transit works in the Twin Cities, if transit works in Duluth, and if roads and bridges work in greater Minnesota,” Gov. Tim Walz said at Thursday’s event, attended by about 100 transit enthusiasts.
Those rapid buses are seen as more politically acceptable and economical than light rail. The metro’s first rapid bus, the A Line, which debuted nearly three years ago, has proved popular with transit riders at a time when overall bus ridership is declining here and across the country. Ridership on the A Line, however, has steadily increased each year of operation, providing some 1.6 million rides last year.
An added perk with the advent of the C Line is the electric buses, which provide a cleaner, quieter ride.
Transportation sources are the No. 1 contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota, with heavy-duty vehicles like buses playing a major role. “If we’re going to reduce that, we need more buses like this,” said Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, chairman of the House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee.
Metro Transit hopes to gradually electrify its fleet of rapid and regular buses with the purchase of 19 new 40-foot electric buses, which will begin to arrive in 2020. As the buses are added, the transit agency will gain a better understanding of how they operate in Minnesota’s notorious cold climate that can sap battery power.
The electric bus that debuted Thursday was the first manufactured by New Flyer in St. Cloud. It has an approximate range of 100 miles before it needs to be recharged. Charging will take place overnight at Metro Transit’s hub in Minneapolis, as well as quick 12-minute rapid charging at the Brooklyn Center Transit Center.
“There’s been a dramatic increase in interest in our zero-emission vehicles,” said Jennifer McNeill, New Flyer’s vice president of sales and marketing.
Metro Transit’s electrification plan won kudos from the Twin Cities Transit Riders Union, a grass-roots advocacy group. “Transit is already much better for clean air than driving alone, so this move to electric buses by Metro Transit really goes to the next level,” said transit union member Harry Maddox in a statement. “It will make a big difference for frequent riders, people who live near bus routes and especially the drivers.”
From Los Angeles to Martha’s Vineyard, transit agencies across the country added 568 electric buses to their fleets in 2017, according to U.S. PIRG, a consumer advocacy group. That number continues to grow, though some challenges have surfaced.
Recently, Albuquerque scuttled its electric bus program after experiencing equipment malfunctions and battery range issues with vehicles manufactured by a Chinese firm, according to media reports.
Six of the C Line’s fleet will still be diesel buses, which at $800,000 per bus are cheaper than the $1.2 million price tag for an electric bus.
On rapid buses, passengers pay before boarding, and stations are heated and feature real-time schedule information with a bus arriving every 10 minutes during peak hours. The buses have signal priority at intersections to keep them moving.
While the C Line is being funded through a mix of federal and local dollars, Walz’s proposed budget calls for a new eighth-of-a-cent sales tax in the seven-county metro area to support the regional bus and transit system. That would raise about $770 million over the next decade.
The governor’s budget also proposes adding 220 electric buses to Metro Transit’s fleet.