It had that new bus smell.
With a shiny metallic ceiling, unscathed floors and even a rear window, Duluth's newest city bus took to the streets Thursday morning for its inaugural loop around downtown, completely carbon dioxide-free.
"To be celebrating departing from diesel is kind of an emotional shift in my brain," said Charlie Zelle, the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation. "But...I think the electrification of our fleet is the future."
Unlike its noisier cousins, the loudest feature of the seven new buses won't be the engine, rather the commotion of its passengers. The new electric buses will also sport a fiberglass body so they are lighter with rounded edges.
"It's got a distinctive shape, kind of like a whale," said Phil Pumphrey, the general manager of the DTA.
Duluth is the first city in Minnesota to use these buses, and one of 10 public transportation organizations in the country to take the first step toward zero-emissions public transit.
Rick Nolan's senior adviser, Tom Whiteside, spoke on behalf of the congressman, commending the city for taking the first step into zero-emissions transportation. Mayor Emily Larson expressed the importance of the social connection people got from riding the bus. The DTA board president, Aaron Bransky, said the new buses were a test to see how efficient the vehicles could be in a harsh climate.
"We are going to be comparing the operating and maintenance costs of electric buses with conventional diesel buses," Bransky said. "We have a robust maintenance program and keep records of how much things cost and they're going to work."
It's one of the reasons Duluth was selected for the $6.3 million grant from the Federal Transit Authority. Its record keeping will help the city gain a better understanding of the efficiency of the buses. And in a hilly city that reaches sub-freezing temperatures annually, Duluth was the right choice for the experiment.
"It's a very calculated experiment," Pumphrey said. "There's already a movement within the industry to move toward this."
Pumphrey said electric buses have been around for awhile, but their mainstream success has only taken off in the last five years. Because of Duluth's geography, the city is now benefiting from that trend, capitalizing on a future that both urban centers in the Twin Cities and Rochester hope to soon embrace.
The first-time expense of the buses wasn't cheap. Pumphrey said they'll cost about $900,000 each - about twice as much as the diesel buses the city owns. However, Bransky said he hopes the long term benefits outweigh the initial fee.
"Generally electric vehicles cost more on the front end, but cost less to run over time," he said. "Not just fuel, but maintenance as well."
However, the buses will have a supplemental heating system that will be diesel-run. It's meant to prolong the battery life of the engine and keep the driver and passengers warm in the winter.
Despite getting its introduction in late October, residents shouldn't expect to see the vehicles on the road until Nov. 19.