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Metro approves fleet of 14 electric buses at up to $1.3 million each

Metro approves fleet of 14 electric buses at up to $1.3 million each

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ST. LOUIS — After a few years of kicking the tires, St. Louis is finally buying a fleet of electric buses.

The board that governs Metro Transit on Friday approved spending up to $18.6 million on the purchase of 14 new electric buses — a move that marks the St. Louis-area transit agency’s first major commitment to electric vehicles.

“We are really beginning to see the fruition of several years of planning,” said Jessica Mefford-Miller, executive director for Metro Transit.

The agency has been trying out electric buses for years, test driving one model in 2017 and securing grants for four electric buses in 2018. But this purchase, paid for in large part by a federal grant, gives St. Louis a sizable electric fleet compared with other, more populous U.S. cities. Chicago, for instance, announced last year that it would add 20 electric buses to the two it already had running; currently, the entire U.S. only employs about 650, said analysts at the research arm of Bloomberg Finance.

“Fourteen buses for St. Louis, that’s a good start,” said Sierra Club Missouri chapter Director John Hickey, who spoke at Friday’s meeting.

The electric buses will replace diesel vehicles retiring at the end of 2020. Except for the occasional use of diesel backups, the new buses will make up the entire fleet running along Metro’s 70 Grand line — the busiest bus route in the St. Louis region, with about 7,000 daily boardings.

The operations committee for Bi-State Development — the body that oversees Metro — issued a unanimous recommendation last month that the Board of Commissioners approve the deal.

The buses cost up to $1.33 million each, significantly higher than combustion-engine models. But Metro officials said lower maintenance and fuel costs will save money over their 15 years of service.

Thanks to those savings and other benefits such as reduced emissions, Metro expects that its bus fleet will become increasingly electric.

Notes from the agency’s October meeting said current emissions standards will make it difficult to keep diesel buses on the road for as long as they have been. Electric buses, the notes said, will improve the system’s “long-term financial outlook.”

The diesel-to-electric conversion has been brewing for a while.

In early 2017, the agency conducted a one-week test drive of an electric bus from the California company Proterra. Metro also pieced together a pair of separate grants in 2018 to support the acquisition of four 40-foot electric buses from another manufacturer, Gillig.

Metro is buying the new buses from Canada-based manufacturer New Flyer. They are capable of driving 200 miles per day.

Mefford-Miller said Proterra’s costs were “quite a bit” higher than New Flyer’s.

Grants from the Federal Transportation Administration would account for about 80% of the new purchase, with the remainder covered by local sales taxes, according to Metro.

Mefford-Miller said all the electric buses will roll out in early 2021.

Ameren, the St. Louis-based power company, is regearing Metro’s Brentwood garage so it can handle bus charging — part of an effort to support the new vehicles as well as future growth of Metro’s electric fleet. Ameren’s commitment of $1 million to the initiative is the result of an earlier legal settlement reached by the utility.

The shift toward electric buses is part of a broader trend. Numbers nationwide have doubled since the end of last year, when there were only 300 or so.

“That’s quite remarkable,” said Nick Albanese, a researcher at Bloomberg who has developed electric bus forecasts.

Just this month, Los Angeles agreed to buy 130 electric buses, Albanese said. And many small cities in North America have recently made small orders to get comfortable with the technology as they weigh larger purchases.

He said battery prices for the vehicles have fallen 85% from 2010 to 2018. Those cost trends, plus other commitments to cleaner technology, mean the orders will continue.

By 2040, Albanese said, 80% of public bus fleets will be fully electrified.

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