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Electric buses arrive in Duluth

Nate Mascarenas, who works in maintence for the DTA, takes one of the new DTA electric buses for a spin around the parking lot Friday morning. Five more of the $1 million buses are scheduled for delivery this month. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 5
Heath Hickok, director of marketing for the Duluth Transit Authority, walks through the interior of one of the new electric buses that features a carbon-composite body and large windows with tinted glass. The buses will begin transporting passengers the first week of October. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 5
James Hall, technical trainer for Proterra, the manufacturer of the new electric buses, hooks up the new electric DTA bus to a charging station in the bus garage Friday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 5
The dashboard on the DTA's new electric buses is completely digital. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 5
A new, 42-foot-long DTA electric bus pulls out from the parking lot onto Michigan Street on its way to the bus garage for parking at its charging station Friday morning. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com5 / 5

In the works for three-plus years, electric buses are arriving in Duluth at last.

Two of the buses are already in the Duluth Transit Authority garage in Lincoln Park; five more of the $1 million a-piece whirring people movers are scheduled for delivery this month.

"It sounds like a golf cart," said DTA spokesman Heath Hickok, test-riding one of the new buses on Friday. "This is a game changer. People who never ride the bus will want to ride the electric buses."

The appeal of the electric bus felt instantaneous. There was something both new and classic about its curves — as if the manufacturer, Proterra, of South Carolina, took a rounded bus from the 1950s, raised it on whole milk and sent it to space camp.

While three of the buses are scheduled to be wrapped with advertising, the bus made available to the News Tribune was all white with classic DTA pinstriping.

The carbon-composite body of the bus passed the sturdy knock test. It's a near seamless shell that forms up around a lithium ion battery hidden below the floorboards somewhere in the middle of the 42-foot-long bus.

On board, the tinted windows wrapping the bus create ample visibility during what is a quiet and floating ride.

"The back window is cool — especially in Duluth, where we're such a sightseeing city," Hickock said.

The electric buses will begin to be used on routes during the first week of October. To be non-discriminating, the electric buses will be employed by the DTA as any other bus and could appear on any given route, Hickok said.

"We want everybody to have a chance to ride the electric buses," he said.

Each of the new buses is required to be out-of-service during a 21-day "commissioning" process following delivery. They will also undergo performance tests using more than 100 sandbags as passengers, said DTA's procurement manager Nancy Brown — "to simulate the weight of a full bus so we can evaluate speed, handling and battery state of charge for comparison of performance on Duluth's hills," she added.

The first mention of electric buses being ticketed for Duluth came in February 2015 from U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan's office. The local congressman helped procure $6.3 million in grant funding from the Federal Transit Administration to get the buses. The Minnesota Department of Transportation later kicked in $1.1 million.

On Friday, the outgoing lawmaker was excited to hear of the buses' arrival. The buses had been delayed one year while the DTA and manufacturer worked together to design a package suited to Duluth's harsh climate.

"This is something everyone here in Duluth and across our region can feel good about," Nolan wrote the News Tribune. "... Given its long, cold winters, there is no better place than Duluth to demonstrate electric bus technology."

Originally targeted to receive fast-charging buses, which pull a charge in a matter of minutes in-between routes, Proterra and the DTA settled on Duluth receiving instead "extended-range" buses which will charge overnight and go for at least 170 miles or 7-8 hours at a time.

DTA general manager Phil Pumphrey was the first person to pump the brakes on excitement surrounding the electric buses. He explained there are no plans to order more and that the future of electric busing in the city will be determined over the coming years.

"We are testing them in our extreme climate and environment," Pumphrey said. "We're excited to see how it will work for us."

The DTA operates roughly 70 buses as it transports 6,000 riders a day and 3 million riders annually. That fleet number includes 10 brand new diesel buses, which the DTA board of directors approved as part of regular fleet management.

The diesels are boxy and look like what riders have come to know locally. They're about $450,000 each, Pumphrey said, and in the coming years the DTA will measure the costs of maintaining and operating the new stable of diesels against the new stable of electrics — which come with higher up-front costs, but are expected to be cheaper to maintain. With fewer moving parts, the electric buses are less involved mechanically, sources said.

The outcomes of a long-term comparison between the new diesel and electric buses will help determine the direction the DTA takes in the future, Pumphrey said.

Also, it's important to note the electric buses aren't entirely electric.

"Technically, low emissions," Pumphrey said, explaining that auxiliary diesel heaters were added to Duluth's electric buses so that riders can expect the cabins to never lose heat in the winter — even if the battery is working hard to power the bus up an icy hill.

"It's the only fully electric bus with a tailpipe," said Proterra technical trainer James Hall, who was in town to help train DTA drivers and mechanics on operating and fixing electric buses.

Hall showed off the fully digital dashboard.

"There's no gears to deal with," he said from the driver's seat. "It's just park, drive or reverse."

The buses regenerate, he said, meaning they create added electricity when braking.

Over the next year-plus, performance data will be collected and shared with the feds and others within the transportation industry, the DTA's Brown said. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., will use the data to prepare a study on electric busing in Duluth. Daily temperature and weather conditions will be recorded along with details on battery performance. The critical factor will be how well the 440-kilowatt battery holds up.

"The DTA is a good choice for this study because of our weather and terrain," Brown said, "... but the long-term potential is not yet known."