May 19, 2022
WTA diesel bus purchase prompts questions re zero-emission progress
Matt Benoit

A passenger boards one of two — for now — electric buses in Whatcom Transportation Authority’s fleet. While WTA works with the manufacturer to resolve issues with the two buses, the agency has ordered eight new diesel buses, a move that has been challenged by Whatcom Democrats concerned about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. (Amy Nelson photo © 2022)

May 19, 2022
WTA diesel bus purchase prompts questions re zero-emission progress
Matt Benoit

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Whatcom Transportation Authority’s (WTA) recent decision to purchase eight new diesel-powered buses has gotten pushback from Whatcom Democrats who find the purchase at odds with the county’s long-term emissions goals.

Meanwhile, WTA continues to work with the manufacturer of electric buses brought into service last year on troubleshooting issues with the EVs, and contends the diesel bus purchase won’t derail its strategy toward zero emissions by 2040. 

Voters at a Whatcom Democrats general membership meeting April 23 unanimously approved a resolution calling on WTA to reverse its decision for the purchase.

On May 10, Second Congressional District Rep. Rick Larsen (D) wrote to Michael Lilliquist, WTA’s board chair and a Bellingham City Council member, seeking clarification on WTA’s diesel decision. 

Lilliquist responded that WTA’s board ordered the new buses in time to lock in a lower price before scheduled increases from California-based bus manufacturer Gillig. The order can be revised any time between now and September, he explained, meaning zero-emission electric buses could still be ordered in place of diesel-powered ones. 

Les Reardanz, WTA’s general manager, said in an email that purchasing after the price hike, which has subsequently taken effect, would have cost WTA at least $300,000 more. 

WTA had planned to replace eight retiring diesel-powered buses in 2023, and add two electric buses to join the two it already has. WTA also has eight hybrid-powered buses in its current fleet.

Troubleshooting glitches

The two in-service electric buses were purchased in 2021 from Gillig using a $2.3 million grant from the Federal Transportation Administration’s Low or No Emission Vehicle Program. WTA spent $575,000 to train staff, install electric chargers, run quality checks and troubleshoot the new vehicles (see “Electric buses to debut, marking trend in Whatcom County,” Salish Current, June 10, 2021].

The troubleshooting was necessary after software glitches led to several performance issues. As reported last month by Cascadia Daily News, the electric buses had issues with computer-controlled power steering, malfunctioning drive trains and heaters drawing too much power from bus batteries during the winter. 

Other transit agencies have had similar issues with their electric buses, Reardanz told Salish Current

“This is still relatively new technology — especially software — and we’re working through the growing pains,” he said. “This happened with our hybrids, too, and we’ve planned, budgeted, warrantied for it.”  

Gillig has been responsive in working through issues, he added, expressing confidence that the buses will work well and technology will continue to improve with time. 

Not a simple swap out

Replacing WTA’s diesel fleet with all electric buses isn’t as simple as just swapping them out.

There are numerous technical and operational variables to consider when determining which routes best fit an electric bus’s capabilities, Reardanz said. These include how local weather, geography and even individual driving habits affect the performance and range of the bus. 

Many transit agencies are transitioning into electrics slowly to give time for a learning curve without negatively affecting overall service, he added. 

Lilliquist said it’s too soon to know how many of the eight new buses will be converted to electric.

Reardanz estimates that switching all eight to zero-emission would cost about $10.4 million versus $5.4 million for all diesel. 

Even with diesel fuel prices at all-time highs, WTA’s fuel budget is relatively small compared to larger operating expenses such as payroll, Lilliquist said. Its 2022 fuel budget is just under $1.3 million of a total operating budget of $41.3 million, about 3%, while salaries and benefits account for about 80%. [Ed.: Corrected for clarity, May 23, 2022

Part of the plan for a greener future, an electric WTA bus glides quietly — and cleanly — away from Cordata Station. (Amy Nelson photo © 2022)

In addition, the change-over to an electric bus fleet will require continued changes to WTA’s infrastructure, such as installing chargers at their transit centers for on-route charging, Lilliquist said in his response to Whatcom Democrats. Currently, the company has the space for 12 e-bus charging stations at its base, he said. 

Todd Donovan, WTA board and Whatcom County Council member, said that he believes some WTA board members aren’t totally convinced the current Gillig electric buses will perform adequately if ordered now, based on the limited experience of their first two.

Donovan himself, however, doesn’t share that sentiment. 

“Although the electric buses are more expensive, WTA presently has much larger than normal cash reserves due to the influx of federal stimulus funds, with more to come,” he wrote. “Purchasing any electric vehicle right now is a challenge given high demand and inflation, so it may be prudent to lock in these vehicles sooner rather than later.”

Cleaner, greener days in the plan

While it remains to be seen how many electric buses will be cruising the streets and roads of Whatcom County by next year, local plans for a cleaner, greener future are clearly laid out. 

Bellingham has a goal to reduce carbon emissions by 40% by 2030 from its 2000 baseline. The county, meanwhile, is hoping to reduce emissions by 45% of 1990 levels by 2030, and curb government-based emissions by 85% of 2000 levels.

WTA’s 2040 Long Range Plan includes a strategy to find grant funding for a zero-emission fleet by 2040, Lilliquist said, noting that the company has applied for such grants before and not always gotten them. 

In his response to Larsen, Lilliquist urged the congressman and his colleagues to find financial support for public transit agencies like WTA to enable the company to complete a rapid transition to zero-emission buses.  

Build ’em in Whatcom?

There’s also a chance WTA might eventually use electric buses made in Whatcom County itself. 

Vicinity Motor Corp., a Canadian electric bus manufacturer, is in the final stages of completing a new assembly facility in the Ferndale area. The project was announced by the Port of Bellingham in June 2021 after the Washington State Department of Commerce gave the port a $300,000 grant toward Vicinity’s plans. 

Port Commissioner Michael Shepard said the new facility will likely be completed and building buses by this summer.

Reardanz said WTA has had preliminary discussions with Vicinity about the agency’s electrification needs, including for paratransit buses.

“We’re super excited about Vicinity and the opportunities to partner going forward,” he said. 

Just one part of the puzzle

WTA, of course, is just a small piece of a much bigger carbon puzzle.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is stressing the need to lock in reductions by 2030, Donovan said. He noted that WTA purchasing eight diesel buses that will likely remain in service until 2035 seems at odds with those plans. 

And while the electric vehicle movement has come a long way in just a decade, WTA board member and Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu said EVs have a way to go to make a real impact on nationwide transportation emissions. 

“The greenhouse gas issue is a macro-environment issue not based on few locations,” he said. “Noticeable climate impact mitigation is a long game. A diesel bus has limited life and developing a plan for total conversion to electric over the next two to three decades is more realistic and affordable.”

— Reported By Matt Benoit

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photo: Amy Nelson © 2022
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