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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Getting There: China leads the way with the world’s most electric buses and high-speed rail lines; will Spokane follow?

The first Proterra electric bus built in Walnut, Calif., is seen in June 2017. The Spokane Transit Agency has plans to fully electrify its fleet and has won grants to buy three electric buses, but still owns none. (Marcus Yam / TNS)

In 2009, the Chinese city of Shenzhen had exactly zero electric buses.

The bustling metropolis had grown from a fishing village of 30,000 people in 1980 to a major city of 12 million people, and was about to undergo another transformation. In five years, the city electrified its entire bus fleet and today the city’s 16,000 buses are all electric. Of the world’s 425,000 electric buses, 99% are in China.

In the last six months, Spokane Transit Authority has won grants to help fund the purchase of three electric buses. It hasn’t bought them yet, but it has built a $7.5 million garage specifically for its coming fleet of electric vehicles, which includes the Central City Line buses.

Three electric buses. That leaves about 150 diesel buses, 120 paratransit vans and 100 vanpool vans in STA’s hands – all of which have internal combustion engines that run on petroleum. That’s why the new electric bus garage was built with an underground storage for up to 20,000 gallons of fuel, a fact that pumps the brakes some on the transit agency’s contention that one of its priorities is “full electrification of the fleet.”

So what’s the holdup? We live in a region with prolific hydropower, and in a state whose governor is currently running for president on one issue: climate change. Shouldn’t we have more electric buses by now?

A pair of reports from the World Resources Institute that came out last week suggests yes, we should, but describe the technological, financial and institutional barriers to adopting electric buses. They looked at 16 cities worldwide, examined what was holding them back from full implementation of electric buses, and identified ways to overcome challenges preventing adoption.

The obstacles include better understanding of upgrades to the power grid and required infrastructure for charging. But by far the largest impediment is money.

Since an electric bus costs more than what a conventional bus does, the investment may make many municipalities and taxpayers blanch. According to Forbes magazine, the average cost for a big electric bus is around $750,000, whereas a standard diesel bus goes for $435,000. But while the buses cost more, they can be cheaper to operate. The Antelope Valley Transit Authority in Los Angeles County, for example, saves an average of $46,000 for every bus, every year by going electric versus diesel, according to TechCrunch.

Not everyone likes this math. The conservative Washington Policy Center crunched its own numbers, and argued in a recent blog post that buying an electric bus is like paying $616 for a latte.

In an interview with CityLab, Carmron Gorguinpour, a co-author of the World Resources Institute reports, said cities dwell too much on upfront costs and not enough on the “life-cycle cost,” leading them to delay adoption in favor of small pilot projects.

“We encourage cities to do whatever they can afford,” he said. “But if you’re going to get five electric buses in your city, you should work with a group of stakeholders to come up with a strategy, to say, ‘How am I going to learn enough from these five buses to construct a plan to get me to 500 or to thousands of buses?’ ”

To its credit, STA is in the midst of an exhaustive study looking at how electric buses will fare in our hilly, wintry city. But it’s here where China offers another lesson, beyond the content of the reports. Much like its dominance in electric bus adoption, China has led the way in the construction of high-speed rail.

In 2003, the country had about 250 miles of high-speed rail lines, connecting Qinhuangdao and Shenyang. Ten years later, China Railway had built 6,200 miles of high-speed railways, rapidly and at 60% the cost of other countries.

How did it do it so fast and at such a low cost? A report from the World Bank, which helped finance the construction of the rail network, said the cost of the project was driven down by the simple fact that it was done all at once and quickly.

“This has allowed the standardization of the design of various construction elements, the development of innovative and competitive capacity for manufacture of equipment and construction and the amortization of the capital cost of construction equipment over a number of projects,” the report read.

Translation: China’s construction was something like Henry Ford’s mass production assembly line, except it was done on a countrywide level for high-speed rail.

Build it all and do it now. Much like the electric bus reports suggest All of which comes down to one simple lesson: If change is coming, and if it is desired, do it all at once and save us all some money and a lot of time.