On Earth Day, Colorado Springs' mass transit system took a major step toward operating a more environmentally friendly fleet of buses.
Mountain Metropolitan Transit officials Friday unveiled four battery-powered, electric buses that they say will produce zero emissions and offer quieter service while they complement the transit system's fleet of 67 buses that operate via a clean diesel technology.
Two battery-powered buses will begin service Sunday along the Barnes Road and Tutt Boulevard corridors on the Springs' northeast side, while the others will operate throughout Mountain Metro's system to test their performance, said Brian Vitulli, planning supervisor for the city's Transit Services Division.
The buses are a first for Mountain Metro and will replace older diesel vehicles, he said.
"Zero tailpipe emissions," Vitulli said of the new electric buses. "Very quiet, very clean technology."
The 40-foot-long vehicles, which were manufactured by suburban San Francisco electric bus maker Proterra, can run 220 to 330 miles on a single charge, and can operate "pretty much throughout our entire system," Vitulli said. "They can mostly accommodate all of our routes."
On the one hand, the buses will accommodate 35 to 40 seated passengers, about the same as their diesel counterparts. They'll also have amenities that riders see on diesel buses.
But riders will notice a difference with the new electric buses, Vitulli said; not only are they quieter as they glide along, but riders waiting at a bus stop will hear a hum as the vehicles approach, he said.
The buses look different, too; they've been wrapped in artwork and photos that pay homage to Colorado Springs' electric history, including an image of scientist Nikola Tesla sitting in his Springs laboratory. The photos were made available from the Pikes Peak Library District and the Wellcome Collection of Tesla.
Tesla, the namesake of the Elon Musk auto manufacturing company, came to Colorado Springs for nine months in 1899 to research the possibility of wireless electric power at higher altitudes. Though only in the Springs a short time, Tesla left a lasting impression; a Colorado Springs Utilities hydroelectric plant was named for him in the early 1990s.
Each electric bus carries a $1.2 million price tag for a total of $4.8 million, Vitulli said. A charging system for the buses also cost $200,000.
That system provides a slow, overnight charge to power buses for the next day's use; it's possible Mountain Metro could add rapid charging stations at transfer centers to allow buses to stay out on the road longer, he said.
Mountain Metro received financial assistance to help fund the buses.
Two vehicles were funded with proceeds from a nearly $15 billion nationwide settlement with Volkswagen over claims that the German automaker cheated emissions tests and deceived customers. A portion of that money, nearly $1.1 million, was funneled to Mountain Metro via the Colorado Department of Transportation.
The other buses were funded with a $1.6 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration.
The Volkswagen and federal funds, in effect, allowed Mountain Metro to cover the cost of what it would have paid for a new diesel bus — roughly $500,000 to $600,000 — and upgrade to the electric vehicles, Vitulli said.
Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority funds also helped cover the cost for the buses, he said.
Vitulli said the four buses won't be the end of Mountain Metro's efforts to reduce its carbon footprint.
Mountain Metro begins a downtown shuttle service in late May with six, 30-foot-long diesel buses, he said. The transit system will apply for a Federal Transit Administration grant at the end of that month that seeks funding to purchase electric-powered shuttles, Vitulli said.
The transit system also will embark on a zero-emission vehicle transition plan this year that will provide a blueprint on how it can move to environmentally friendly vehicles and a timeline to accomplish that goal, though it can't replace its 67 diesel vehicles until they've reached the end of their "useful life," he said.
Ultimately, Vitulli said, Mountain Metro's fleet could have more electric vehicles or those with newer technologies, such as hydrogen power.
"That is something we're very excited about, to try to transition our fleet from diesel to some zero-emission type of vehicle," Vitulli said. "It's one of our goals as an organization.
"We're trying to go after every state and federal grant that becomes available to purchase zero-emission vehicles," he added. "Until we get those funds, we'll have to keep operating our existing fleet. But we're certainly moving in that direction."