Electric Buses A Poor Investment for Wyoming Localities
The town of Jackson and Teton County’s ambitious plan to transition to a low-emission transit system by replacing diesel buses with electric ones has hit a roadblock, with none of the eight electric buses in their fleet currently operational. Moreover, the manufacturer of these buses, California-based Proterra, recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, adding to their woes.
The Southern Teton Area Rapid Transit (START) system, a collaboration between Jackson and Teton County, had purchased the electric buses to supplement its existing fleet of 31 vehicles. However, the electric buses have been out of service for the past two months, with some awaiting parts for an extended period.
START Director Bruce Abel expressed uncertainty about when the necessary parts would arrive and when the electric fleet could be back in operation. The bankruptcy filing by Proterra has left the future of the company and its outstanding orders in doubt.
The decision to opt for electric buses seemed promising, with the potential for clean, wind, and hydroelectric-powered vehicles. However, the bankruptcy has dealt a blow to these plans.
Some critics argue that the transit system should have considered natural gas vehicles, given the availability of natural gas in the region. They view the choice of electric buses and the selection of Proterra as a poor decision in hindsight.
Proterra was previously seen as a reputable company, enjoying financial support from federal taxpayers and receiving praise from President Joe Biden. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allocated more than $5.5 billion for low- and no-emission buses, with each electric bus costing around $1 million.
In addition to the bankruptcy, the electric buses had performance issues, particularly during cold weather. Batteries suffered from reduced range in low temperatures, forcing buses to return to the depot midday for recharging, which affected their overall efficiency.
While some critics have questioned the system’s low ridership, START has reported a growing number of riders, with a 14% increase in the first eight months of this year compared to the same period in 2022. In 2022, ridership was up 47% over 2021, attributed in part to the post-COVID rebound.
Despite the current challenges, START is not giving up on its electric bus initiative and plans to phase out its diesel fleet. Additional electric buses are on order, but their delivery is years away, and the manufacturer will not be Proterra.
The bankruptcy of Proterra and the non-operational electric buses serve as a cautionary tale about the complexities and challenges associated with transitioning to electric transportation in the public sector.