Santa Rosa gets 7 hybrid transit buses

Santa Rosa is set to roll out seven sleek new hybrid buses that promise to be quieter, easier to maintain and more fuel efficient than those on the road today.

The 40-foot diesel-electric buses built by New Flyer Industries of Winnipeg, Manitoba, come with a hefty price tag — $4.5 million, or about $650,000 each, according to CityBus' Interim Transit Director Jason Parrish.

But they also come with skylights, larger bike racks, LED headlights and signs and a hybrid drive system fueled by 16 lithium ion batteries recharged by a regenerative system and diesel engine.

"With the addition of these beautiful, state-of-the-art buses to our fleet, not only are we helping to improve air quality, we are improving the transit experience for all our riders," Parrish said.

The city's fleet of 35 buses carried just over 3 million passengers last year, a record. The new buses will bring the total number of hybrids in the fleet to 12 — eight diesel-electric and four gas-electric, Parrish said.

The city has some regular diesel buses that are more than 12 years old, with an average mileage of 550,000. The seven new buses will replace seven of the older diesel buses, which will be sold at auction, Parrish said.

The new buses are funded through a combination of Measure M revenue, the quarter-cent sales tax county voters passed in 2004 for transportation, state bond money and federal transit and stimulus dollars. They will be rotated into service next week.

Compared to modern passenger vehicles, their gas mileage is abysmal, around 6 to 7 miles per gallon, Parrish said. But that's a 30 to 50 percent improvement over existing models, Parrish said. Precise figures won't be available until the new buses operate in real-life conditions for a while, he said.

The buses cost $200,000 to $250,000 more than diesel-only buses, but the city should recoup most or all of that cost over time, Parrish said. Maintenance costs should be lower. And if diesel prices remained at $3.60 for the next 12 years, the fuel savings alone would be between $140,000 and $180,000, he said. But if fuel costs continue to trend upward has they have in recent years, it's possible the fuel savings could alone justify the higher bus prices, he said.

But buying the cheaper diesel buses wasn't really an option anyway, because of requirements by the state Air Resources Board that the city aggressively lower the fleet's overall greenhouse-gas emissions, Parrish said.

Aiding fuel efficiency is the lighter weight and sleek design. They also have more headroom, more insulation for a quieter ride and racks that carry three bicycles instead of two. The buses continue to carry 39 passengers, but have more forward facing seats with better cushioning, Parrish said.

Fares of $1.25 per ride have remained the same since 2008, when they were increased from $1.15, Parrish said. Other bus services in the region charge up to $2 per ride.

"They literally remain the cheapest fares in the Bay Area," Parrish said.

One of the reason the city chose the diesel-electric hybrids is because of its years of experience maintaining diesel fleets, Parrish said. But numerous other types of alternative energy buses are on the market, including compressed natural gas, micro-turbine powered hybrids and even all-electric models.

Parrish said the city will explore a range of options as it decides how to replace more than a dozen buses with fuel efficient models in the coming years.

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