Six transit agencies debut the Proterra EcoRide BE35 in-service this fall

By David Hubbard

The all-electric 35-foot Proterra EcoRide™ BE35 transit bus expands its public service this year. Garrett Mikita, president and CEO of Proterra, Greenville, SC, says he could not be more delighted for the six transit authorities nationwide realizing the simplicity of electric propulsion. He notes that the buses going to the agencies are production units and not hand-built prototypes. The model is the first of its kind to pass through the arduous shakedown by the Altoona Bus Research and Testing Center in Pennsylvania, the decisive test for transit buses.

“The technology is proven; our company is performing and winning orders as a result,” he says. “Passengers enjoy a smooth noise-free ride on zero emission transit.”

He says that while the Proterra electric bus has a price premium over diesel or natural gas vehicles, the total cost of ownership has a payback in some cases as fast as three years.

“While the EcoRide™ is environmentally friendly and quiet, there is no escaping the economic benefit,” says Mikita. “It is always a key factor in the adoption of this technology.”

Last year, Proterra produced eight buses and will manufacture another 40 this year. Mikita says the goal for 2014 is 100 units.

Proterra says the proprietary charging stations also differentiate the company from other bus manufacturers. The transformer behind the scene has undergone a significant evolution, now half as big as its original size. It is soon to become smaller yet.

“The founders of Proterra have created a highly reliable vehicle with quick-charge battery energy propulsion system as a superior alternative to fossil fuels,” he says. “However, the true change agents are the transit authority leaders who are operating this technology today and providing their ridership the opportunity to experience this new technology.”

Six transit authorities lead the charge

City of Seneca, Seneca, SC —The City of Seneca, SC, contracts with Clemson Area Transit, otherwise known as CATbus and operated by Clemson University for fare-free public transportation. Seneca happens to be the electrical service provider, owning its own electric utility, which makes a very attractive platform to invite all-electric transit technology.

With arrival of four Proterra EcoRide™ buses, the City of Seneca will be the first community in the nation to operate a totally electric bus system and no longer be beholden to the price fluctuations of diesel fuel. “These are exciting days,” Mayor Dan Alexander said at the launch of the project.

The entire fleet will consist of four all-electric transit buses,” says Ed Halbig, City of Seneca director of Planning and Development. “We are looking forward to reduced emissions and lower cost of service overall. We want to demonstrate the efficiencies that a 100-percent viable electric alternative can achieve.”

The Center for Transportation assisted in writing and procuring the grant for Seneca, and will participate for two years with the city to collect data in a study on the project.

All four Proterra buses will be in service on three routes by the end of the year.

“After that, we’ll let the study take its course,” says Halbig. “We think we will have some very positive results to show for our effort.”

Two overhead fast chargers will be in place at the downtown park-and-ride facility and at another location further along the route toward Clemson. The planned route schedules allow optimal charging for each bus without interference from the other vehicles.

The city purchased and converted a former textile mill into a garage and maintenance facility for the new fleet, where a shop charger will be installed to support regular maintenance.

CATbus General Manager Al Babinicz says he hopes to eventually expand the all-electric concept to the other communities within the transit district.
Star Metro, Tallahassee, FL — Through the summer, Star Metro turned its launch of the Proterra EcoRide™ into a carefully choreographed community event leading up to the Big Reveal of the specially wrapped mystery bus later this month. The campaign entices the community to help disclose the final bus wrap of the EcoRide™ BE35, now designed as if in a brown paper bag.

“This was all done to build genuine excitement over the big change coming to public transit in Tallahassee,” says Ralph Wilder, StarMetro superintendent of transit maintenance. “We have been very careful to this point not to reveal to the community what is under wrap.”

To stir anticipation for the launch of Tallahassee’s first electric bus fleet, the agency employed QR technology accessible through social media and communication sources throughout the Tallahassee community. Using smartphones, iPads or tablets, riders would scan the dozens of Q/R codes within the artwork mounted on the bus ceilings, which took them to a website containing valuable information presented through interactive games and classic comedy routines. Curious riders captured the codes, entered them on the website and earned credits in a drawing for prizes. As the QR entries poured in, StarMetro removed sections of the brown bag to gradually reveal an area of the bus design prior to the Big Reveal.

Additionally, StarMetro is working with IS BuildArts to design and construct a concrete cladding sculpture to cover the entire 28-foot wall surrounding the fast-charge equipment. The sculpture represents the symbolic Live Oak Tree of Tallahassee and symbols that show the benefit of electric buses to the environment.

San Joaquin RTD, Stockton, CA — San Joaquin Regional Transit District (RTD) celebrated its deployment of two fast-charge Proterra EcoRide™ BE35s buses earlier in the year. The agency will test the two buses over a two-year period as part of a demonstration project administered by CALSTART, and will retain ownership of the buses after the demonstration period. The California Energy Commission (CEC) awarded San Joaquin Regional Transit District a $2.56 million grant towards an electric bus demonstration project valued at over $4 million.

“We’re excited to be a part of an historic new era of zero-emission public transportation,” says RTD General Manager and CEO Donna DeMartino. “We are very impressed with Proterra’s innovations in providing environmentally-friendly and sustainable transportation. This project is another positive example of how we can leverage new technology to protect our environment and save costs at the same time.”

Proterra is producing the automated fast-charging station for RTD’s Downtown Transit Center as a matching commitment to the CEC grant. RTD’s only responsibilities are the installation costs for the charging station and the administration of the CEC grant.

The buses will initially operate on RTD’s Route 51, which has the DTC as its midpoint. At the DTC, the 100 percent battery-electric buses will use the overhead charger to fully charge in 10 minutes or less. The buses can operate up to two hours on a single charge.

The Worcester Regional Transit Authority, Worcester, MA —Worcester Regional Transit Authority (WRTA) serves the city of Worcester and 35 communities in the central Massachusetts area.

Interested in reducing its dependency on one particular fuel source, the agency began exploring its options. A presentation by Proterra five years ago encouraged WRTA to consider the Proterra EcoRide™ BE35 as a means to save money and attract new riders. This led the agency to apply for a $4.5 million clean fuels grant to purchase three Proterra electric vehicles.

“We wanted to gingerly test this technology, as Worcester is in a cold climate with hilly terrain,” says WRTA President Stephen O’Neil. “We feel certain that these buses will perform and also improve the air quality in this area. Over the summer, we began determining routes for the six buses. We will have three in service after Labor Day, and Proterra will deliver three more by the end of the year.”

WRTA is introducing the buses with a green theme. They’ll include graphics and slogans – Every day is Earth Day, for example. The agency has established a special route through the downtown area to demonstrate all-electric transit. WRTA is encouraging people to leave their cars at home and rely on the green bus at least a few times a week.

The agency recently opened its new $16 million hub, which provides space for the Proterra fast charging station.

“Half of our battle was won before the buses arrived,” says O’Neil. “The public saw the charging station and started asking questions about what it was and what it was for.”

The first three buses will run on a new downtown shuttle route and charge once an hour. Once in full service, all six buses will fan out in different directions through the Worcester community on shorter, lower- capacity routes.

VIA Metropolitan Transit, San Antonio, TX — VIA Metropolitan applied for a TIGER grant in 2011 and received $5 million for its three Proterra EcoRide™ buses, as well as an on-route charger and a garage charger. The agency put the buses into service in January, becoming the second city behind Pomona, CA’s Foothill Transit to employ all-electric technology.

Gary Glasscock, VIA vice president, Fleet and Facilities, says his agency’s Proterra deployment is unique, in that it charges its batteries with 100 percent renewable energy.

“Our three electric buses are totally green, including the electricity from the grid,” he says. “The in-route charger features solar panels to augment the power coming from the grid to charge the batteries. We purchase extra energy, whatever energy the solar panels can’t produce, from the grid. In this case, the electric power comes from wind turbine generators located in western Texas and along the Gulf Coast.”

Glasscock reports positive responses from operators as well as the people working downtown who appreciate the buses’ quiet movement.

“One of the issues we deal with on a regular basis is the noise level from the number of buses running in the downtown area,” he says. “We operate a hub-and-spoke system, so just about every bus runs its route through downtown. We get noise complaints regularly, but people were quick to pick up on the quiet Proterra buses.”

Currently three VIA buses operate for three route cycles between charges, which Glasscock says takes about an hour.

Glasscock sees this technology as the wave of the future. He says that as the battery technology continues to develop, transit authorities will able to increase the range the buses can travel between charges. This will mean more flexibility in assigning routes.

Washoe Regional Transportation Commission, Reno, NV — By September, Washoe Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) will have received its four Proterra electric buses. They’ll go into service in November. According to David Jickling, director of Public Transportation and Operations, the agency will devote several months to orientation and training.

“If there is one bit of advice we have sensed from some of the other properties, it is to train the operators thoroughly on how these buses work, particularly the charging component,” he says. “Connecting to the charging unit is a whole new driving and maneuvering aspect to the bus. The process is a little counterintuitive for most drivers.”

He sees this as new territory for Washoe RTC.

“There’s no need to rush into service,” Jickling says. “We want to make sure we have everything right, and will take the time to orient our maintenance technicians on how to maintain these buses.”

Because of the relationship of these buses to the charger, they cannot run on every route. The plan is to introduce the electric buses on the Sierra Sprit circulator route in the downtown Reno area that also serves the University of Nevada, Reno. Each bus will return to the charger approximately every 15 to 20 minutes for a three-minute charge.

“The students will get a good look at the buses,” says Jickling. “Residents and visitors will get to see the technology in action.”
Washoe RTC first worked with a larger consortium of transit agencies to put together funding to purchase Proterra electric buses. When that deal collapsed due to a lack of federal support, RTC continued with a funding mechanism of its own.

A note on Proterra
Committed to helping the United States achieve energy independence, Proterra says it sources more than 80 percent of the content and components for its EcoRide™ buses in the United States from 33 states.