The first thing you will notice about the new hybrid shuttle buses in downtown Spokane is how quiet they are compared to conventional diesels.
“What I love about the hybrids is I can hear the passengers all of the way in back,” said John Guarige, a driver for Spokane Transit Authority.
On Monday, STA will launch three hybrid electric-diesel buses to replace the green replica trolleys that have shuttled through downtown for the past 15 years.
The 29-foot coaches from Gillig Corp., of Hayward, Calif., will get better fuel mileage and have reduced maintenance costs. The savings should offset their additional purchase price over the life of the buses.
“The assumption is we will break even on fuel savings over the 15-year lifetime” of the buses, said CEO Susan Meyer of STA.
The shuttles will join a fleet of nine 40-foot hybrid coaches already operating on highly traveled routes, including the No. 25 route on North Division Street. An additional 10 hybrid coaches are expected to be delivered early next year.
The hybrids come at a premium price. The option on the 40-foot model is $190,000 more than a conventional bus. They are distinguishable by an enclosed space on the rear roof that holds the hybrid battery and inverter.
They come with a low-floor design that makes it easier for passengers to get in and out, especially with wheelchairs.
But critics say that the fuel savings, battery cost and a reduced number of seats in the low-floor design make the hybrids a costly expenditure, according to the conservative Web site OregonCatalyst.com.
Meyer acknowledged that STA is aware of the environmental benefits of lower fuel consumption and emissions, but that the decision to purchase hybrids was based on a cost analysis.
A hybrid bus may be able to operate for 500,000 miles with a single engine while conventional buses need at least one major engine rebuild. The bus itself could go for 800,000 miles. Braking systems which charge the hybrid batteries last longer than conventional brakes. Other moving parts undergo less stress.
Maintenance is estimated at 11 cents per mile for hybrids compared with 65 cents per mile for diesels.
Each hybrid shuttle will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 365 tons over its expected life.
The electrical propulsion provides primary power up to 13 mph, when the diesel power kicks in. In addition to the quiet, the variable transmission system doesn’t have the jarring gear shifts of a conventional bus.
The new shuttles will get 6.35 miles per gallon of diesel compared with a fleet average of 5 mpg and 4.3 mpg for the trolley replicas.
The shuttle hybrids are decorated with promotional art for downtown. Their primary job is to move passengers from commuter lots east of the Spokane Arena to the bus Plaza on West Riverside Avenue.
Currently, about 600 commuters pay $19 a month under the City Ticket program to use the lots and shuttle. The ride takes 7 to 8 minutes each way. There is room for another 150 commuters.
“We have capacity for more people,” Meyer said.
In addition, the shuttles with their 50-cent cash fares are being promoted as a way to get around downtown, and new bus stop signs are being installed to show their routes.
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