Visalia Transit charges up city’s first battery-powered buses

Three zero emissions buses will begin on Route 1 on Oct. 1; all buses may have to be zero emissions by 2040

By Reggie Ellis

VISALIA – Black clouds of smoke lingering at bus stops and stop signs will soon be a thing of the past in and around Visalia.

Beginning on Oct. 1, Visalia Transit will use its first battery-powered buses within the city limits. The first three of these battery electric buses (BEB) were delivered last month and one was fully charged and open for tours following the Visalia City Council’s work session on Sept. 4. The 40-foot Proterra E2MAX-Duo Power buses run completely on battery power and have zero emissions. The company claims the cost of electricity versus other alternative fuels — such as CNG and diesel hybrids — will save the city nearly half a million dollars over the course of 12 years. Proterra also estimates its BEBs will save the city an estimated $275,000 in maintenance costs when compared to other alternative fuels.

“We recently took delivery of three new electric buses and they’re the first of their kind to be added to our Visalia Transit fleet,” shared Melody Murch with Visalia Transit. “These buses will be used in a pilot program which monitors their performance in comparison to the Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) vehicles we currently use on our Transit fixed routes.”

The buses are expected to be used by the city’s new operations and maintenance contractor, First Transit, for driver training this month. The buses are scheduled to begin revenue service on Route 1 on Oct. 1. Murch said Route 1 is the city’s busiest route connecting to Main Street to Mooney Boulevard. The buses have an estimated range of 175 to 200 miles on a full charge but will travel under 150 miles daily in a full loop of Route 1.

Murch said cities in California are expecting California Air Resources Board (CARB) to release new mandates soon that will require public transit buses to be zero emissions if purchased after 2026 and that all buses be zero emissions by 2040. Murch said fully electric buses and CNG buses will both meet the mandate but now the city can test to see which is more cost effective. She said both types of buses will be used on Route 1 and both will be equipped with data loggers to provide the comparison.

“Our air pollution is terrible and these are the things we need to do to try and correct it,” Vice Mayor Bob Link said.

Councilman Phil Cox said he was hopeful the new buses will be reliable. He recalled taking a ride on the city’s first hybrid trolley when they were cutting edge technology 16 years ago. He said the trolley broke down on the outskirts of town for over an hour on a hot summer day.

“Usually when you are on the cutting edge, you get cut,” Cox said. “I would hate to see it go 60 miles and then people get stranded.”

The city council authorized the purchase of electric buses in January 2016 as part of two grant programs funded by CARB. The buses cost just over $1 million each which was paid for with $1.7 million from CARB’s pilot program, $725,000 in Proposition 1B funds, $709,000 in state reimbursement funds, $258,000 in Gas Tax money and $451,000 from local roads funding.

“The buses are currently being charged by the use of a portable charger, but construction of the permanent charging infrastructure is projected for completion by mid-October,” added Murch. “Moving forward, we will work closely with Southern California Edison to manage the electricity rates and demand charges for the charging of these buses, as well as to access any programs or special rate structures available for this type of electric power use.”

In June, the city council approved $630,000 in local road funds to build four charging stations at the Transit Operation Center.

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