After tests, Jefferson City keeps gears moving on electric buses

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JEFFERSON CITY- Over the past two weeks, Jefferson City has been testing electric buses to see if they'd make a good fit for the capital. But before zero-emission buses can be added to the fleet, the city's Transit Division has to work through some road blocks.

"Electric buses are very different than your usual diesel pusher type of bus," said Mark Mehmert, Jefferson City's Transit Division director. 

Jefferson City has conducted two tests, one with an electric bus out of Columbia manufactured by BYD, and one with a bus by Proterra. Transportation officials rode on the buses to get a feel for them, bringing on mechanics to get a closer look at the vehicles.

"The folks in Jefferson City asked us if they could borrow one of our buses for the day to use as a demo, and we gladly accepted the opportunity to do that," said Drew Brooks, Columbia's Transit and Parking Manager. "My understanding is that it did pretty well for them."

Mehmert and the Transit Division were pleased with what they saw.

"The operating costs overall would be substantially lower based upon what we've understood from other entities," Mehmert said.

The city has to consider a few things before taking the next step in possibly implementing electric buses.

First, Mehmert said the Transit Division has to make sure the buses can perform on Jefferson City's hilly terrain.

"A vehicle or a bus may have a range of 200 miles, but if you're going up a lot of hills that takes a lot of additional battery power," Mehmert said.

Electric buses are also lighter than traditional diesel buses, which might lower their longevity, Mehmert said.

The Federal Transit Administration put in place a Useful Life Benchmark for buses, saying a bus is in need of replacement after 12 years of use or 500,000 miles.

The city's oldest diesel buses still in operation are already more than 12 years old with more than 300,000 miles on their odometers. Mehmert said within the next three to five years, those buses will be on their last leg, and he hopes electric buses will fill their shoes.

If the electric buses can maneuver the routes and maintain a charge for a full day's worth of riding, then the department would have to figure out how to pay for them.

Though electric buses are cheaper to maintain, they cost considerably more upfront. One electric bus can cost anywhere from $400,000 to $800,000 if purchased, and that price could be even higher if the buses are leased.

"While we have some matching funds here locally for the city of Jefferson, at the same time, we require from our federal partners, we would need a substantial amount of dollars in a grant program, and those come around usually every year," Mehmert said.

The Federal Transit Administration has a yearly grant of $55 million that it can divide and distribute to programs looking to implement low-emission buses. Columbia received funds from this grant to bring on three additional electric buses.

Besides grants, Columbia paid for its buses with local funding from taxes and decided to do a 12 month lease-to-own agreement to alleviate having to pay millions of dollars upfront.

"We're putting aside dollars from our local transportation sales tax," Brooks said. "We put some of it aside for capital matching."

If Jefferson City decides to purchase electric buses, it'd aim for at least four, which could cost close to $2 million.

Mehmert said the Transit Division needs to make sure "the technology is ripe" enough before it invests funds or asks for a grant, so the technology doesn't become obsolete by the time it's implemented.

After having the buses for around two years, Brooks has a few recommendations for how the Jefferson City Transit Division can get the best use out of its electric buses, if it decides to bring them on.

"Training of your drivers is very important for this type of vehicle," Brooks said. "The driver is probably the single biggest factor in the range that you get out of a day with those buses."

The Transit Division plans on demonstrating an electric bus for a period of at least two weeks. This will help determine whether an electric bus could handle Jefferson City terrain. Mehmert said he expects it to begin in the next six to eight months.