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Honolulu’s TheBus Looks to Bring Zero Emissions to The Island, Launches New Light Rail System

August 7, 2023 • By Alex RomanMETRO Magazine

Although the initial section will not yet get into downtown, TheBus added about $10 million of new and added services to better connect to the first segment of the new Skyline rail system.

Photo: DTS

TheBus is the public bus transportation service on the island of Oʻahu in Hawai'i, providing some of the nation’s most heavily used public transportation services per capita, which combines urban, rural, and rapid transit service, as well as its TheHandi-Van paratransit service.

TheBus is privately managed by the nonprofit Oahu Transit Services Inc. (OTS), which operates the system under a public-private partnership with the City and County of Honolulu Department of Transportation Services (DTS). DTS also recently launched service of its Skyline light rail system in June after construction was completed by the Honolulu Authority of Rapid Transportation (HART).

With all that, it’s easy to say there’s much going on as the island continues to bounce back from the impact of COVID. One huge success has been their usage of GILLIG Battery-Electric buses, which have proven to be beyond efficient as TheBus looks to transition all of its fixed-route buses and Handi-Van paratransit vehicles to zero emissions.

The cost of the replacement zero-emission buses and vans, as well as the development of charging facilities, is a multi-billion project over 15 years, and will more than likely be financed through federal grants.

Photo: DTS

Life On The Island

With the COVID pandemic having a severe impact on the region, ridership is starting to bounce back slowly but surely, with TheBus beginning to introduce new services on a gradual basis.

“Previous to the pandemic, we had a real captive audience of tourists, office dwellers, and Waikiki resort employees who used our system,” explains J. Roger Morton, director of DTS at the City and County of Honolulu. “Many of the office dwellers haven’t come back yet, and frankly, we don’t know if they are ever going to come back, because we are seeing office vacancies going up in our downtown area. I’d say for the most part, the resort employees are back, but in addition to that, the large Japanese tourist contingent, which historically used our transit system, has not come back yet.”

Morton explains that during the “bad old days” of COVID, ridership dropped by 90% over a few weeks. Growing steadily, TheBus is back to about 65% of its previous ridership. In response to the huge drop in ridership, TheBus cut back its services by about 20% but is steadily increasing its services. He says by July of this year, TheBus should be back to about 94% of its previous service levels.

Robert Yu, president and GM at OTS, explains that while fixed-route bus service is still growing steadily, its Handi-Van paratransit service ridership is growing a bit more rapidly.

“Handi-Van has bounced back much quicker and is at about 80% of our pre-COVID ridership,” he explains. “The reason for that is that many of our third-party providers on the island, like taxicabs, have decreased substantially because many of the drivers left town or simply never returned, I’m guessing, because they found other driving jobs during the pandemic.”

Yu also explains that while Honolulu did have quarantining measures in place at some point during COVID, access to the island was difficult because the airlines cut the number of flights into the state, which made it difficult even for people who had a business or personal reason to be there.

TheBus currently operates 17 electric GILLIG Battery-Electric buses and has charging capacity for about 36 buses.

Photo: DTS

Going Zero Emissions

One big success story over the last few years is TheBus’ usage of battery-electric buses, which have been provided through a partnership with GILLIG.

“We currently operate 17 electric GILLIG Battery-Electric buses and have charging capacity for about 36 buses,” says Morton. “New charging facilities are being developed at our Pearl City yard and the Alapai and Pearlridge transit centers.”

The battery-electric buses are just the latest in a long-time partnership with GILLIG.

“For over 30 years, GILLIG has maintained a strong relationship with the City & County of Honolulu and Oahu Transit Services. They consistently provide amazing diesel buses and outstanding customer support, and the same can be stated with their delivery of electric buses,” says Adam Tamayoshi, VP, maintenance, for OTS. “These buses are well-built and handle extremely well. As with any new technology, there have been some growing pains.”

Tamayoshi adds that some of those slight hiccups to date have included a few battery packs that needed to be replaced, multiple software updates have needed to be installed, and a campaign was performed to address possible coolant leaks within the battery packs.

“Throughout these challenges, though, GILLIG has kept in constant communication with us, provided support to our local Cummins dealer with repairs, and is always inclined to send technicians, when needed, to address any problems that may arise,” he says. “We are now able to utilize the electric buses to their fullest potential.”

As for performance, an early analysis by the Center for Transportation and the Environment provided some promising results, including operating greater daily mileage than TheBus’ existing diesel fleet.

“This has been possible because the operations folks at OTS have figured out how to keep the state of charge high by recharging the bus during the midday period after the AM peak when there is abundant renewable energy on the grid, mostly from rooftop solar panels,” says Morton. “Second, the 40-foot electric buses are operating at a 37 miles-per-gallon equivalent versus 4.5 mpg for diesel. Actual energy costs for the electric fleet were 64 cents per mile, compared to $1 per mile for our hybrid buses.”

Morton adds that OTS has been able to keep energy prices low through a partnership with the local utility, which gave TheBus a rate plan for the electric buses that exempts them from demand charges as long as they don’t charge during the utility peak 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. period.

“We have some of the highest utility rates in the U.S. here, so we are fortunate that Adam and his team are able to take advantage of charging the vehicles during those off-peak times,” says Morton. “Just to give you an example, TheBus is paying about 30 cents per kilowatt-hour composite, but our rail system will be paying about 56 cents per kilowatt hour because they're not able to take advantage of the off-peak times. Some of its heaviest usage is going to be during the peak times of 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.”

Anecdotally, Morton says TheBus may be getting such great efficiency numbers for its GILLIG Battery Electric buses because the buses don’t have heaters installed on them, so therefore, they never have to heat the buses, which typically draw power from the batteries at a high rate.

The first 17 buses are just the start of the City and County of Honolulu’s commitment to a zero-emission municipal vehicle fleet, which includes its buses and Handi-Vans.

“At the current time, this means battery-electric buses. In the future, it might include other technologies, such as hydrogen,” explains Morton.

He adds that TheBus’ electrification plan has a 15-year horizon and includes the acquisition of more than 500 buses, 250 Handi-Vans, and related service vehicles as older vehicles reach retirement age. He also says that electrification is dependent upon the development of a heavy-duty, high-speed bus charging system, which the agency projects a 12-year horizon to develop the necessary charging infrastructure.

The cost of the replacement buses and vans, as well as the development of charging facilities, is a multi-billion project over 15 years, and will more than likely be financed through federal grants.

Although the initial section will not yet get into downtown, TheBus added about $10 million of new and added services to better connect to the first segment of the new Skyline rail system.

Photo: DTS

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