There it was, hovering above the crowd in orange capitals: “GO GREEN.” That was the theme for Friday, Jan. 28, the unveiling of Santa Barbara County’s first-ever electric commuter bus on the Avenue of Flags in Buellton.
The “45-foot beauty,” as supervisor Das Williams dubbed it, makes SB Transit the third in the nation to institute zero-emissions long-distance service, behind the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. Angeles and the Antelope Valley Transit Authority.
Or, as Marjie Kirn, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Government Association (SBCAG), said at the ceremony: “Those other two agencies are much bigger than us. We are therefore the first small agency to do so.
BYD, the manufacturer, has customized the Clean Air Express bus to provide almost the same experience as diesel models. That is to say, the interior is plush with enough seating for 53 passengers – and it’s piled high with high-tech features like Wi-Fi and a credit card reader up front. Bonus: there’s the “new bus smell” that passengers can still smell through their masks.
The 54,000-pound giant came with an $850,000 prize – Caltrans providing $500,000 of that chunk through SB1, aka the 2017 “petrol tax” vote. It’s an investment that will serve around 7,000 passengers per month commuting from as far away as Sainte Marie. Replacing a diesel commuter coach with the zero-emission carrier will eliminate more than 50 tonnes of CO according to SBCAG2 per year.
Many ride on this electric commuter bus. “The significance of this bus is that there has been electrification of local transit like MTD for a decade or more,” said Scott Spaulding, director of rail and transit programs for SBCAG. Independent. “But there has been no real demonstration of a zero-emission long-distance bus service, and that’s what this is about.”
The C10M model will operate as a “demonstration service” in the sense that SBCAG will deploy it on all Clean Air Express routes to convince the SBCAG board of directors to invest more in an electric fleet. “There has been hesitation or a bit of reluctance from transit agencies to operate zero-emission buses at this length,” Spaulding said, adding that some CAE routes run 75 miles one-way. unique. According to BYD’s website, the bus model’s top speed is 65 mph and its “working range” can reach 172 miles. “That’s why we partnered with the state to say, ‘Let’s show everybody this works.’ And it will eliminate that hesitation and resistance.
The bus is designed to fully charge in three to four hours, but SBCAG’s transit facility in Goleta will charge a little slower than that “just because we don’t have the power to be able to do that.” Spaulding added that the transit agency plans to increase the power “so we can definitely charge it up in a day so we can run it daily.”
The diesel “replacement” comes with a major caveat, however: SBCAG will retain all 17 diesel buses in its fleet. The new electric bus will simply resume the schedule equivalent to a bus, while 16 diesel buses continue to operate and the “replaced” diesel bus remains on the sidelines. “So we’re just going to go to 18, monitor the service request, and then deal with the disposal process at a later time,” the transit manager told the Independent.
“We will see if we need to expand the service as we only have nine trips left from our pre-COVID 13,” he continued. “We don’t want to get rid of vehicles that we might need later, even spare parts. To be conservative in terms of managing our fleet, we will simply monitor demand and see if we need to speed up service.
During the ceremony, a roll call from local officials — including Congressman Salud Carbajal, State Senator Monique Limón and Das Williams — was “charged” for the electric bus. “It’s no secret that transportation is the biggest contributor to climate change in California,” Williams said from the podium as cars streaked down either side of the Avenue of Flags. “So if we’re going to be serious about tackling climate change, you have to be serious about reducing vehicle miles travelled.”
It may be a bus, but as Carbajal pointed out, it is a symbol of a larger movement. “Think of all the school buses in America that are now going to switch to electric buses,” he said. “So think about that magnitude of what that will do for air emissions across the country.”
As for the diesel phase-out schedule? “We don’t have a specific time for that,” Spaulding said. “But we want to see how it works. And then we will make a recommendation to the SBCAG board on a long-term fleet replacement strategy.
View Clean Air Express routes at cleanaireexpress.comand learn more about SB 1 funded transportation projects at RebuildingCA.ca.gov.
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