Santa Barbara County Becomes Third District in Nation with Electric Commuter Bus
A Lot Riding on This ‘45-Foot Beauty’
There it was, hovering over the crowd in orange all-caps: “GO GREEN.” That was the theme of the Friday, January 28, unveiling of Santa Barbara County’s first-ever electric commuter bus at the Avenue of the Flags in Buellton.
The “45-foot beauty,” as supervisor Das Williams dubbed it, makes S.B.’s transit agency the third in the nation to institute a long-distance zero-emission service, behind the Los Angeles Department of Transportation and the Antelope Valley Transit Authority.
Or, as Marjie Kirn, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG), put it during the ceremony, “Those other two agencies are much larger than us. So we’re the first small agency to do this.”
BYD, the manufacturer, customized the Clean Air Express bus to offer nearly the same experience as the diesel models. Which is to say, the interior is plush with enough seating for 53 passengers — and it’s stacked with high-tech features like Wi-Fi and a credit-card reader up front. Bonus: There’s the “new bus smell” that riders can still take in through their masks.
The 54,000-pound behemoth came with a price tag of $850,000 — with Caltrans providing $500,000 of that chunk via SB1, a k a the “gas tax” vote of 2017. It’s an investment that will serve an estimated 7,000 passengers a month commuting from as far as Santa Maria. According to SBCAG, replacing one diesel commuter coach with the zero-emission transporter will eliminate more than 50 tons of CO2 per year.
Electric commuter coaches are $150,000 to 200,000 more expensive than their diesel counterparts, but less expensive to operate, wrote Lauren Bianchi Klemann, SBCAG’s public information manager, in an email. She estimates that the cost of diesel fuel for “an average CAE round trip is about $112, depending on fuel prices. The anticipated cost of electricity to operate an average CAE round trip is $34, or about 70 percent less expensive.”
She also noted that the state has a Hybrid Vehicle Incentive Program “to help transit agencies make up that capital cost delta between diesel and electric,” which SBCAG received for the 45-footer.
A lot is riding on this electric commuter bus. “The significance of this bus is that there’s been electrification of local transit like MTD for a decade or more,” Scott Spaulding, SBCAG’s director of rail and transit programs, told the Independent. “But there hasn’t been any real demonstration of long-distance zero-emission bus service, and that’s what this is.”
The C10M model will function as a “demonstration service” in the sense that SBCAG will roll it out across all the Clean Air Express routes so that they can convince the SBCAG board to invest in more of an electric fleet. “There’s been hesitation or a little bit of reluctance on the part of transit agencies to operate zero-emission buses at that length,” Spaulding said, adding that some CAE routes extend to 75 miles one-way. According to BYD’s website, the bus model’s top speed is 65 mph, and its “working range” is up to 172 miles. “So that’s why we partnered with the state to say, ‘Let’s show everybody that it works.’ And then that’ll take that hesitation and that resistance away.”
The bus is designed to fully charge in three to four hours, but SBCAG’s Transit Facility in Goleta will charge a bit more slowly than that “just because we don’t have the power to be able to do that.” Spaulding added that the transit agency is planning to increase the power “so that we can definitely charge it within a day so that we can operate it daily.” A battery’s lifespan ranges from 12 to 18 years depending on use. (According to Jason Yan, director of sales operations at BYD, the manufacturer provides a 12-year battery warranty.)
The diesel “replacement” comes with one major caveat, however: SBCAG will retain all of the 17 diesel buses in its fleet. The new electric bus will simply take over the schedule equivalent to one bus, while 16 diesel buses continue operations and the “replaced” diesel bus sits on the sidelines. “So we’re gonna just go to 18, monitor demand for service, and then deal with the disposal process at some later point,” the transit director told the Independent.
“We’ll see if we need to expand service because we’re down to nine trips from our pre-COVID 13,” he continued. “We don’t want to get rid of vehicles that we might need at a later point, even spares. To be conservative in terms of our fleet management, we’ll just watch demand and see if we need to ramp service back up.”
At the ceremony, a roll call of local officials — including congressmember Salud Carbajal, state senator Monique Limón, and Das Williams — were “charged up” for the electric bus. ”It’s no secret that transportation is the largest contributor to climate change in California,” Williams said at the podium as cars whizzed by on either side of Avenue of the Flags. “So if we want to be serious about fighting climate change, you’ve got to be serious about reducing vehicle miles traveled.”
This may be one bus, but as Carbajal pointed out, it’s symbolic of a larger movement. “Think about all the American school buses that are now going to transition to electric buses,” he said. “So think of that magnitude of what that will do for air emissions across the country.”
As for the timeline on ditching the diesel? “We don’t have a specific time on that,” Spaulding said. “But we want to see how this performs. And then we’ll make a recommendation to the SBCAG board about a long-term fleet replacement strategy.”
Check out Clean Air Express routes at cleanairexpress.com, and learn more about transportation projects funded by SB 1 at RebuildingCA.ca.gov.
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