IA: Cedar Rapids seeks funding to replace 5 diesel buses with hybrids

April 16, 2024
Cedar Rapids Transit is looking to replace five 2011-model diesel buses with five new hybrid electric buses through the program. The city typically replaces two of its 30 or so buses each year.

Apr. 13—CEDAR RAPIDS — After completing a plan guiding Cedar Rapids' transition to lower-emission vehicles in the city's quest to be carbon-free by 2050, city officials are opting to seek federal funding to add five hybrid electric buses to their transportation fleet.

The Cedar Rapids City Council this week signed off on a resolution supporting the Iowa Department of Transportation's application to the Federal Transit Administration for its fiscal 2024 Low or No Emission Grant Program, which offers competitive grants for purchasing low- or no-emission buses.

Cedar Rapids Transit is looking to replace five 2011-model diesel buses with five new hybrid electric buses through the program. The city typically replaces two of its 30 or so buses each year.

Hybrid diesel-electric buses have a more modern, sleek appearance than normal buses and store energy captured during coasting and braking. They have geofencing technologies that can kick the bus into electric mode when they reach certain zones. They also have a start/stop mode allowing the diesel generator to power off when the vehicle comes to a full stop.

"This is the right way to go at this time," Cedar Rapids Transit Manager Brad DeBrower said. "It makes sense for us to do in both an environmentally and fiscally responsible manner."

In December, consultant 1898 & Co. helped the city finalize a Zero-Emission Transition Plan for Cedar Rapids Transit. Should the city incorporate electric buses into its fleet, this plan identifies resources to make that transition possible. The federal government requires transit agencies to draft such a plan to seek federal grants that subsidize the cost of purchasing the vehicles.

If the grant is approved, it's anticipated the fiscal 2026 transit budget would include the necessary 15 percent local match and the buses would likely arrive by fiscal 2026 or 2027. The local funding would come out of transit reserve funds.

The new buses first would be placed on Route 5, the most-used route that operates on First Avenue at a 15-minute frequency. The route serves "environmental justice" communities — neighborhoods that are either more racially diverse or of a lower socioeconomic status. Then, two other buses would likely go on Route 8 mostly serving southwest Cedar Rapids or the next-busiest routes.

"When they looked at demographics, switching over was going to end up benefiting the populations that are disproportionately impacted," DeBrower said.

Prioritizing the busiest routes also helps maximize environmental benefits and would curb carbon dioxide emissions the most, he said.

City officials have been wary of transitioning to fully electric buses as other communities in Iowa and Minnesota have faced issues with these vehicles not being reliable in extreme cold weather. In Des Moines, for instance, electric buses have been pulled off city streets since November 2022 because of maintenance issues.

If Cedar Rapids Transit faced similar operational issues, DeBrower said the city would have to scale back service. But hybrid buses could operate in extreme weather without losing the charge.

Proterra, the nation's leading electric bus manufacturer, also has filed for bankruptcy protection — raising concerns about the instability of the electric vehicle market at a time when the federal government is moving to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Plus, DeBrower said the vehicles can cost over $2 million to purchase and the technology such as charging infrastructure to support them is quickly evolving and costly to keep up with.

With that in mind, DeBrower said hybrid buses offer a more reliable performance without assuming extra infrastructure and purchase costs of electric buses. If the city is successful in transitioning to the hybrid buses, the study explored using buses manufactured by either Gillig or New Flyer. DeBrower said the city would stick with Gillig, its current bus manufacturer.

Before expanding the fleet beyond these five buses in the future, DeBrower said staff would "take a step back and make sure they'd be performing the way we're hoping they would" and look at funding.

Currently, buying two of Gillig's diesel buses costs about $615,000 a year, DeBrower said, but prices have risen since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The hybrid buses cost over $1 million per vehicle. While inflation is driving up fuel costs, DeBrower said hybrid buses would help reduce city spending on fuel and maintenance costs.

The bus fleet parks at three locations — the Transit Bus Garage on Eighth Street NW, the Ground Transportation Center downtown and the Twixt Town Road Transfer Point in northeast Cedar Rapids. Hybrid buses would have to be parked at the first two locations, which support electric vehicle charging infrastructure. If expanding electric buses throughout the metro area in the future, the city could revisit infrastructure at the Twixt Town Road facility.

In Iowa City, which has four electric buses, Transportation Services Director Darian Nagle-Gamm said in an email the city plans to replace all diesel buses with electric ones as they age out.

All electric vehicles, including the city's buses, have decreased range — miles driven on a full charge — during extreme cold, she said.

"Practically speaking, we need to return them to the facility sooner in the day for recharging during the coldest days," Nagle-Gamm said. "Otherwise, they do fine in the cold. This time of year we get the best range — when we are not running the heat or the air conditioning. We expect the cold weather range concerns to diminish as battery technology advances."

Iowa City received a $23 million Federal Transit Administration grant to expand its electric bus fleet and help fund a new transit facility built for a full electric bus transition. Nagle-Gamm said the city is beginning the design process this year and anticipates providing transit service from the new facility in the next three to four years.

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