Nov. 17—The Pace bus fleet in Waukegan will be the first in the entire system to be converted to a fully electric line, with an electric garage for charging.
The electric fleet expansion is in line with the organization's goal to operate with zero emissions by 2040, said Linda Soto, director of Pace Suburban Bus, which serves Cook, Lake, Will, Kane, McHenry and DuPage counties.
Pace's 2024 budget invests in sustainability and ridership access, with a proposal for free fares on fixed routes for riders with Americans with Disabilities Act certification. Currently, riders with disabilities receive reduced fare prices on all fixed routes, but a proposal for free fares across service areas is on the table.
The Pace Board of Directors approved the free-fare proposal, so the organization is waiting on approval from the Regional Transportation Authority.
The public transit system is investing $55 million from its 2024 budget into the renovation and expansion of the North Division Waukegan service, which includes the installation of electric charging stations.
Pace anticipates construction for the electric charging stations to begin in 2024, likely after the winter. Additionally, 22 electric buses are expected to be delivered next year by Proterra, an electric vehicle manufacturer, the majority of which will be integrated into the Waukegan fleet.
Even though Proterra is expected to be purchased by Volvo after filing for bankruptcy in August, the company said it will still fulfill Pace's order, according to chief communications officer Maggie Daly Skogsbakken.
North Division, which operates 32 buses along various routes, was selected for the first electric fleet due the size of the division, length of routes and equity investment.
The division is big, but comparatively small compared to other divisions, and operates mostly local routes. One concern about the electric buses is the ability for long-haul routes without proper charging infrastructure along the way, something Pace is looking into for future electric buses, Skogsbakken said.
Pace also chose to invest in Waukegan because it's a historically underserved community.
"To help fulfill our goals of equity, we wanted to prioritize those communities that needed more investments," Skogsbakken said.
During a Tuesday presentation to the Lake County Board, Soto said the electric buses will make an impact in Waukegan, where a high percentage of riders are low-income or part of a minority group.
Concurrently, Pace is adding charging infrastructure and a handful of electric buses to service in Bridgeview and Plainfield, as well as considering the addition of charging stations for personal vehicles at transit centers for riders and employees.
"It's not just about getting the electric buses, it's about really reforming holistically the whole system, our entire fleet and how we operate," Skogsbakken said.
Ridership across the bus system is expected to increase by 3.6% in 2024 to about 15.6 million trips. In general, the organization has been making enhancements in Lake County to provide more evening service on the weekdays and weekends.
"One of the biggest barriers for us to adding the (route) frequency that we want, and adding the services we want, is recruitment," Skogsbakken said. "(The) nationwide operator shortage, it's hitting us. It's hitting every transportation industry."
To mitigate the shortage, Pace is partnering with dozens of local colleges and job centers to offer free courses for a commercial driver's license with an immediate path to employment with Pace.
The College of Lake County and the Independent Center of Waukegan are two Lake County partners providing training for future Pace operators.
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