Vail testing fully electric buses this year; purchases wouldn’t come until 2020 | VailDaily.com

Vail testing fully electric buses this year; purchases wouldn’t come until 2020

An all-electric bus manufactured by BYD was in Vail for a test the week of March 20. Three more electric buses will be tested this year and evaluated for battery life and other factors. The town could purchase its first electric bus as soon as 2020.

VAIL — For a few weeks this year, four largely silent buses will ferry passengers between the town's soccer fields and the west end of Lionshead Village.

The tests — for about five days per bus — are being run to determine how fully electric buses perform on what town officials call the in-town routes.

The tests started the week of Monday, March 19, when a bus from manufacturer BYD was in town. In addition to working on the town's regular routes, the vehicle was also used to bring Vail Town Council members and other officials from town hall out to the town's bus barn and shops.

The trip was uneventful — and quiet. Passengers could talk in normal tones, and talking to people at the rear of the bus required little more vocal volume than would be required to talk across a large room.

While the bus has various pumps and compressors that make exterior noise from time to time, when rolling purely on battery power, the bus is eerily silent.

Too quiet?

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Vail fleet manager Todd Scholl said the vehicles may actually be too quiet, especially in busy pedestrian areas where people may not be paying much attention to things such as oncoming buses. Fully electric buses working Denver's 16th Street Mall have external speakers that pipe recorded engine noises to the outside world to keep from sneaking up on people in the traffic lanes.

"We don't know what we'll do about that," Scholl said.

First, of course, the town has to determine whether to pursue buying electric buses, and, if so, which buses to buy.

There will be three more tests this year. The next test begins Thursday, April 5, followed by tests in May and October. Town officials will evaluate ease of use, charging times and whether or not a full-battery bus can complete a full shift on one charge.

That evaluation will be studied by officials at Eagle County's ECO Transit service. There, director Chris Lubbers said that agency is looking at the feasibility of using fully electric buses on routes between Edwards and Vail. Those routes carry the most passengers, Lubbers said, adding that those routes seem to lend themselves to service with fully electric vehicles.

While ECO isn't yet ready for its own testing, Lubbers said he and county sustainability director Adam Palmer will be closely watching results from Vail's tests.

In Vail, officials will look at vehicles from BYD, as well as Proterra, New Flyer and Gillig. The town owns a number of buses from the latter company.

The town has landed a federal grant of $525,000 for an eventual purchase. But, since the fully electric BYD bus is more than $700,000, other funding will be needed.

Mark Hoblitzell, of the town's environmental sustainability office, is managing the testing. He said the ultimate goal is to find funding for the cost difference between conventional and fully electric buses. The last buses the town bought were about $425,000 each.

If the tests are successful, then Scholl said the town's goal is for fully electrics to replace the existing 10-vehicle fleet of hybrid buses — which now cover the in-town route.

Funding is a more open question at ECO. Lubbers said that agency has a grant from the Colorado Department of Transportation and has applied to have the grant award shifted from conventional, diesel-powered vehicles to include fully electric buses.

Is there enough power?

Even if the money exists, though, the town can't add a number of battery-powered buses all at once. There currently isn't enough electric service at the town's public works headquarters to charge several buses all at once.

Hoblitzell said Holy Cross Energy has enough power in its grid to cover the needs of a several-bus fleet. And, Scholl added, upgrading electrical service will be part of planning for a full upgrade of the town's public works facility. That, like acquiring fully electric buses, could take some time.

While town officials decide whether electric buses can work in Vail's often-harsh environment, the battery-powered vehicles are finding favor with other transit agencies.

Besides the electric bus fleet along the 16th Street Mall, Hoblitzell said there are cities in Canada, Minnesota and the Pacific Northwest that have fully electric buses in its fleets. The Roaring Fork Transit Authority is also evaluating the buses' potential.

Scholl added that Park City currently has a fleet of six battery-powered buses running on its "bus rapid transit" routes from nearby Interstate 80 to the resort's base area.

In Vail, Scholl said fully electric buses are the "next step" in the town's environmental sustainability efforts. The current hybrid bus fleet has performed well and has cut engine emissions. Fully electrics can continue that push, he said.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com or @scottnmiller.

The next bus

Starting Thursday, April 5, the town of Vail will conduct a five-day evaluation of a fully electric bus manufactured by Proterra. The bus will be used on the “in-town” route that serves Lionshead, Vail Village and Golden Peak. Town officials will evaluate battery life and other factors during the trial.

For more information, email Mark Hoblitzell, environmental sustainability coordinator, at mhoblitzell@vailgov.com.