BELLINGHAM – More electric buses are coming to Whatcom roads – the question is how many and when?
The Whatcom Transportation Authority plans to work toward a bus fleet that produces no planet-warming emissions by 2040, according to its WTA 2040 Long Range Plan.
But achieving that goal is not as simple as immediately ditching all buses that run on polluting diesel and replacing them with electric buses, said Maureen McCarthy, the transportation authority’s director of community and government relations.
“It does take careful planning for the transition,” she said. “It’s actually very complicated.”
WTA’s recent order of eight new diesel-powered buses has brought the transit authority under the scrutiny of some local and state leaders: U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen sent a letter to WTA’s Board Chair Michael Lilliquist on May 10 questioning the order for fossil fuel-powered vehicles, given WTA’s “strong commitment to fighting climate change.”
Vehicle emissions are Washington’s largest contributor to greenhouse gases, which drive climate change. Fossil fuel-powered vehicles also take a toll on local air quality – transportation contributes almost a quarter of the air pollution in the state, according to Washington’s Department of Ecology.
The Whatcom Democrats approved a resolution in April calling on WTA to reverse its order of diesel buses and only purchase electric buses moving forward. The resolution – which cites the urgency of climate change and points to communities in California and China that successfully operate electric buses – also calls on the State Legislature to set electrification targets for local transportation authorities and establish a grant program to fund the work.
But WTA Chair Lilliquist said that the high-profile bus order has been misunderstood by many: The order as currently placed is simply a placeholder intended to lock in lower vehicle prices before scheduled increases. The order can be revised any time before September.
“The idea that we ordered eight diesel buses is a misunderstanding,” said Lilliquist, who is also a Bellingham city council member.
A September deadline should give the transportation authority’s board time to review a preliminary draft of its developing “Zero-Emission Fleet Transition Plan,” which will map out the organization’s future vehicle purchases and is expected to be finalized by early 2023, Lilliquist said.
There’s an “excellent chance” that a number of the eight buses recently ordered will be electric, although it’s very unlikely they will all be, Lilliquist said.
“That is a $4 million or $5 million bump in cost,” he said of purchasing eight electric buses.
Electric buses cost about $1.1 million, plus the roughly $140,000 price tag of a charger and the cost of installing it. Depending on the site, charger installation can range from $150,000 to over $500,000, according to McCarthy with WTA. The upfront cost of a diesel bus is about $600,000.
The transit authority has about 62 fixed-route buses in its fleet, eight of which are hybrid, meaning they run on both diesel fuel and electricity. The hybrid vehicles get about 7 miles per gallon, while the diesel buses get about 5.5 miles per gallon, McCarthy said.
In 2021, the organization got its first two battery-powered electric buses.
The two electric buses are experiencing technical difficulties, but the hiccups are not a cause for serious concern, McCarthy said.
“This is not unique,” she said. “Because it’s such an early generation of buses coming off the manufacturer floor, there are just growing pains with the technology.”
The transportation authority’s hybrid buses posed similar operational challenges for about 18 months after they were first adopted in the early 2010s, but they now perform very well, McCarthy said.