Wear: Cap Metro plugs into a new transit outlet: electric-powered buses

Aug 03, 2018
Capital Metro, which plans to begin buying electric buses for its fleet, will have demonstrations of some vehicles in August and September. The electric buses to be reviewed will include some manufactured by Proterra Inc., a California company. COURTESY OF PROTERRA INC.

Capital Metro buses will spend more than 2 million hours on the streets this year, traveling about 30 million miles.

At 4 miles per gallon, about what the fleet averages, the buses will burn roughly 7.5 million gallons of diesel.

Given that massive use of hydrocarbons, here and elsewhere, the dream for years in transit circles has been to convert all or part of transit bus stables to electric power. Capital Metro, it appears, is about to get serious about going electric.

Next month, the agency board probably will approve a five-year capital investment plan that includes buying and putting into service 40 electric buses from 2022 to 2024. And next year, the agency plans to tear down an old Serta mattress plant on property it owns, adjacent to its North Austin bus and rail service center, and use part of that land for parking spaces and charging stations for those electric buses.

The 40 electric coaches would amount to about 10 percent of Capital Metro’s fleet of 35- to 45-foot-long buses.

“We didn’t want to get in too early,” Dottie Watkins, the agency’s vice president for bus operations, told the Capital Metro board last Monday. In recent years, though, transit agencies around the country have conducted pilot programs, Watkins said, bringing on 10 or fewer electric buses to see how they worked. With the technology improved and battery life expanding to as much as 150 miles on a charge, larger agencies such as those in New York and Los Angeles are starting to buy dozens of electric buses.

Now, Capital Metro is ready to dive in, too.

“We see the future of our fleet to be fully electric,” Watkins told me in an interview last week. “But we might be 20 years from the technology catching up and all the stars aligning” to have all Capital Metro buses running on electricity rather than diesel fuel.

Randy Clarke, Capital Metro’s president and CEO, said there are risks in having a fully electric fleet, not least being what happens if an area suffers a widespread electricity blackout.

“If you have no grid, you have no buses,” he said. “You buy diesel buses? You have fuel in the ground, you put it in the buses and you move.”

Which means backup generator capacity is another factor to consider when electrifying transit fleets.

Capital Metro and other agencies also are still trying to evaluate the relative costs. Watkins said a typical diesel bus costs about $500,000 (it will last at least 12 years if well maintained), and the vehicle can travel about 270 miles on a tank of fuel. Electric buses? About $800,000, she said, including charging equipment, with just over half the range at this point.

And each charging station, she said, runs about $85,000. The potential savings, along with environmental benefits, would come after the buses are delivered and hit the street.

“We know the operating costs are less, but we don’t have specific data yet,” Watkins said.

And then there’s the question of air conditioning, no minor factor here from about May to early October. Whereas a lot of auxiliary systems on a diesel bus are powered by the engine, Watkins said, everything on an electric bus feeds off the battery.

“We want to see what an electric bus can do in the summer heat,” she said.

The agency, and Capital Metro customers, are about to find out. At least three manufacturers, beginning around the middle of this month, will loan some electric buses to the agency for testing in service here. Each should be here, carrying actual customers, Watkins said, for four to 10 days.

While I have your attention …

“Coming in hot.” Maybe it’s just post-traumatic stress from the MoPac express lane construction debacle, but officials with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority appeared as nervous as a cat in a roomful of Roombas during a recent discussion of the $582 million U.S. 183 toll project.

Justin Word, the authority’s engineering director, showed the board a graphic tracking money spent during the two years of construction so far versus a predicted schedule, and the line was dangerously close to showing a project that won’t come in on time.

Or, rather, times. The 8-mile-long project to build six toll lanes and at least four frontage lanes from south of U.S. 290 to U.S. 183 near the airport is split into a north and a south section, with Bolm Road as the rough border between them. The north section is supposed to open to the public by August 2019, with the south part coming onboard by August 2020.

It’s going to be close.

“It’s just a race to the finish to get the project done,” Word said at a July 25 meeting. Yes, he said, Colorado River Constructors has consistently had 600 workers on the job, and the quality of its work has generally been high. But Word said the area, with unemployment so low and development in high gear, has a shortage of skilled construction workers and truckers.

“I don’t want to mince any words with this board,” Word told them. “We will be coming in hot, to put it plainly.”

The contractor has a considerable incentive to finish on time: a $75,000-a-day penalty for failing to meet contractual deadlines for each phase, dates that are in fact months ahead of the scheduled public openings for each section. Of course, the MoPac contractor faced similar sanctions, and the road still opened two years tardy.

Valor now comes toll-free. The mobility authority board, at that same July meeting, joined the Texas Department of Transportation in waiving tolls on most of its roads for certain military veterans. Starting in November, agency officials said, disabled veterans, Purple Heart recipients and those who have received certain military citations for extreme bravery in combat will be able to drive 183-A, U.S. 290 East and the Texas 71 toll lanes for free.

The discount will not apply to MoPac express lanes, however, and each qualifying veteran can use it for only one car. The veterans will have to obtain an electronic toll tag for their vehicle to qualify and pay off any tolls owed.

And the board decided to “sunset” the free-toll program at the end of 2021. The idea was to give the Texas Legislature, which authorized toll breaks for veterans in 2009 but has provided no funding to cover the lost revenue, two legislative sessions to decide how to account for the money the authority will forgo by waiving the tolls.

That figure amounts to $1 million in the first year and as much as $3.2 million annually by 2025.

Since December 2012, TxDOT has waived the tolls for the same categories of veterans — based on specialty license plates designating that they qualify — on Texas 130, Texas 45 North, Texas 45 Southwest and the Loop 1 tollway north of Parmer Lane.