With nearly $3 million in federal money, Santa Rosa CityBus will begin to shift gears toward going electric.
The city’s transportation and public works department recently learned it was awarded $1.78 million in Federal Transit Administration dollars dedicated to improving the nation’s bus safety and reliability through vehicle and infrastructure upgrades. Santa Rosa also came away last year with about $1.2 million through the competitive grant program and now plans to use the total pot to buy its first four zero-emission buses.
“We were lucky. We didn’t think we would be able to strike gold twice,” said Jason Nutt, director of Santa Rosa transportation and public works. “We need these types of windfalls to be able to keep up with the program.”
Under a proposed regulation from the state’s Air Resources Board, a governmental agency that works to fight climate change by reducing air pollution, cities and counties across California would need to deploy full zero-emission bus fleets by 2040. To push that process along, the policy calls for a quarter of new bus purchases to be electric starting in 2026, with all purchases meeting the requirement three years later.
The benchmarks are included in the proposal because federal rules require the useful life of a heavy-duty transit bus to be 12 years or 500,000 miles — whichever comes first — and the state’s operators would need time to plan. Many cities, including Santa Rosa, get more years out of their fleet through consistent maintenance, and out of necessity because of insufficient funding to replace vehicles every dozen or so years.
“Our buses hang around for a while,” said Rachel Ede, a deputy director of the city’s transportation and public works department who oversees transit. “We’re able to keep them up and running for 15 years.”
Some of the city’s current fleet of 32 mostly diesel or diesel-hybrid coaches go even longer than that. The four electric buses it plans to buy will replace those remaining from model year 2002 or possibly one or two of the 2008s, while four new “clean diesel” buses already on order will remove all of the 2000 models from the rotation.
Continuing to buy the latest diesel technology option is a part of the long-term strategy, because of the higher cost of electric models and need for new infrastructure such as charging stations. The clean diesel models have a price tag of about $500,000. The electric buses still run about 50 percent more, Nutt said, and the upkeep, lifespans and distances they can travel between charges still aren’t as reliable as their predecessor technologies.
Over time, however, the hope is zero-emission models become cheaper and easier to integrate into existing fleets. The belief is as more operators make the transition and better understand the power needs and facility upgrades required to run all electric, it’s only a matter of time before that happens.
In the meantime, Santa Rosa is trying to join Sonoma County Transit — which received its first electric coach in September — as an early adopter before it becomes a state mandate. Following study and pending City Council approval this fall or winter, the city plans to leverage state vouchers worth $150,000 per bus and take delivery of four zero- emission models and related charging stations in the next two years.