Spokane’s original public transit system – the streetcar network – was fully electric and powered by the Spokane Falls.
Things have changed, but they may be the same again.
The Spokane Transit Authority is getting its first fully electric bus, the first in what may be full electrification of its fleet. A $500,000 state Department of Ecology grant, part of a settlement between the state of Washington and Volkswagen following the German automaker’s diesel-vehicle scandal, was awarded to the agency to help cover the difference in cost between a standard diesel bus and an electric bus.
Brandon Rapez-Betty, STA’s spokesman, said the money would help move the agency toward “full electrification of the fleet,” a priority for STA that it is studying. The agency has hired the Center for Transportation Excellence, a transit policy research group, to look into the benefits and drawbacks of a fully electric fleet.
“We’ve identified the electrification of the fleet as a priority,” Rapez-Betty said. “We are looking to move toward electric vehicles in the next few years, but we want to make sure we have all the information we need.”
Among other things, the study is looking at how Spokane’s weather and topography will affect an electric transit fleet. Though Rapez-Betty wouldn’t say when the city’s first electric bus would arrive, he estimated between one and three years. Also, he said the bus would likely run on the North Monroe Street to South Regal Street high-performance transit line, which will provide frequent, all-day service beginning in September.
The state grant is part of the $9.4 million the state Department of Ecology awarded to purchase 19 electric transit buses in Spokane, Lewis, Benton, Clark, Pierce, Snohomish and King counties. King County Metro will get the most electric buses, with eight for $4 million.
The state was also awarded $12 million from the settlement to purchase 336 school buses that are either run on “clean diesel” technology or propane. In the Spokane area, seven went to the Mead School District and three to the Medical Lake district. The state gave $35,000 for each bus.
The full $28.4 million settlement with the state is a result of the company’s violation of the state Clean Air Act. In 2015, Volkswagen admitted to the EPA that it rigged cars to evade diesel emissions tests aimed at restricting harmful nitrogen oxides. For years, the company outfitted its vehicles with software that detected when a car was being tested for emissions, allowing up to 40 times the legal limit of harmful nitrogen oxides to be released into the atmosphere.
The company set aside $27.4 billion to cover fines, recalls and other costs, and the state settlement comes from this fund.
A $1.4 billion federal settlement related to the automaker’s deceit will deliver an additional $112.7 million to the state, which will use the funds for a similar purpose as the state settlement. Washington was part of a 17-state coalition known as the United States Climate Alliance, which agreed to use the funds to reduce air pollution related to transportation.
“It’s helping to clear the air after what was a pretty bad scandal,” said Andrew Wineke, a spokesman for Ecology.
Wineke said the state will begin awarding grants from the federal settlement early next year. Most of it will go toward electrifying heavy-duty vehicles such as school, shuttle and transit buses, as well as medium and large freight trucks. The rest of the grant will go toward electrifying airport ground support equipment, forklifts and port cargo handling equipment, locomotive freight switchers, ferries and tugboats. Up to 15 percent of the grant will go toward electric car charging stations and hydrogen fuel cell equipment.
“Just last month, we formally filed the plan that sets out the guidelines,” Wineke said. “There’s going to be additional bus grants as part of the plan. This won’t be the last electric bus we help buy.”
The first round of transit and school bus replacements, as part of the initial state settlement, will cut emissions of nitrogen oxides by 125 tons and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 2,900 tons, according to Ecology.