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TCAT to Purchase 5 Diesels and 7 Battery Electric Buses from GILLIG to Shore up Fleet

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After reliability concerns, mechanical issues, parts shortages and inconsistent service, TCAT has decided to pause services on their seven electric buses, which are now sitting idle in the TCAT garage. The TCAT board of directors plans to vote to purchase five new diesel “replacement” buses at their meeting on Friday, April 12. 

The electric buses were pulled on Wednesday, March 13 following mechanics’ discovery of the frame of one of the buses separating from the axle while it was on a lift. This rendered the bus “unfit for service”, according to TCAT, and Acting General Manager Matthew Rosenbloom-Jones pulled all seven electric buses from service. 

The electric buses, purchased in 2021 from electric bus company Proterra, which filed for bankruptcy just two years after the buses were purchased, originally cost about $1 million each. As a result of the bankruptcy filing, Proterra’s transit line was sold to Phoenix Motor in January. 

The buses were paid for by a variety of sources, including federal, state and local funders. Local funders included the city of Ithaca, Tompkins County and Cornell University.

The five new diesel buses, which will be purchased from the company Gillig, will cost nearly half as much as the electric buses did, at about $517,000 each. According to a TCAT press release, the replacement buses will be funded by the state’s Modernization Enhancement and Accelerated Transit Capital programs. 

TCAT says the buses will take a year to be manufactured, but there is a chance they will come sooner if TCAT’s order is fulfilled alongside a larger transit agency’s order that is buying hundreds of buses at a time.

Currently, TCAT only has a fleet of 53 buses, so the seven electric buses made up 13% of their fleet. TCAT says that since the electric buses launched, the parts shortage for their slew of mechanical issues caused most of them to regularly be out of service. 

“They had very high rates of down time,” Rosenbloom-Jones said. “I’ve been here since January and most of the time we’ve only had one or two on the road each day [...] the utilization has been fairly poor, especially compared to diesel buses of a similar age, they would be on the road much more frequently.”

TCAT said that the electric buses history of inoperability “substantially impacts TCAT’s ability to meet service demands.”

Rosenbloom-Jones said that it will not have an impact on TCAT’s service for the near future.

“We’ve been able to use our diesel buses to supplement the loss of the electric buses, and we’ve been able to do that without any impact to our service,” Rosenbloom-Jones said.

Additionally, he said that the previous electric buses were mostly used on routes that went through Cornell, as they are typically shorter distances to accommodate the battery life of electric buses. Although the buses weren’t restricted to any specific routes, the Cornell routes were the most energy efficient. 

Although there may not be any short-term effects on service, there may be long-term effects on the operability of the current diesel buses. 

“It's forcing us to put more miles on older diesel buses, at a time when we’d like to be phasing out some of those older buses,” Rosenbloom-Jones said. “But in the immediate term, there are not really any problems it causes.”

The purchase of new diesel buses goes against TCAT’s 2018-2030 strategic plan, which aimed to make their transit more sustainable by having all electric transit vehicles by 2035. The plan says, “TCAT is committed to doing its part in furthering sustainable outcomes in Tompkins County. As TCAT considers changes that will make it a more sustainable transit system, we can transition our fleet to buses that have less of an environmental impact than the current diesel dependent fleet.”

Now, six years and $7 million later, their fleet of buses is still entirely diesel powered. TCAT says this will not be a permanent solution; it will only delay their original 2035 goal by “a few years”. Unfortunately, this means TCAT can’t seek more funding for replacing their diesel buses until 2036. 

“The acquisition of the diesel buses will delay, but not abandon TCAT’s aim toward operating an entirely emission-free fleet,” Rosenbloom-Jones said. 

TCAT explained that they are “still on track” to purchase seven more electric buses through the federal Low-No Grant Program, hoping to have the buses by 2026. 

Unlike the previous buses, TCAT plans to buy those buses from Gillig, which Rosenbloom-Jones said is producing “high-quality” battery-electric buses. He explained that Proterra was very new to the electric bus industry and they used newer, less tested technology when constructing their buses, which he believes led to the reliability and mechanical issues. 

“I think some of the other problems [with Proterra] were just lack of experience in manufacturing a good transit bus,” Rosenbloom-Jones said. “We’ve worked with Gillig for a long time, Gillig has been in the industry for a long time. Personally, I feel like they make the best transit bus on the market.”

The future electric buses from Gillig are expected to cost $988,311, which is just over the previous $954,000 buses from Proterra, but Rosenbloon-Jones has hopes for increased reliability. When compared to diesel buses, he says the lifespan is somewhat similar, although the electric buses cost much more. 

“In many ways, a lot of the parts on a diesel bus that fail over time, you just don’t have on an electric bus, but the big problem [with electric] is the batteries,” Rosenbloom-Jones said. “The batteries do have a life cycle, they will degrade over time and they are extremely expensive to replace. Some components do last much longer, but overall the lifespan is somewhat similar.”

Facing declining ridership, service cuts and driver shortages, TCAT board members cite restoring service and rebuilding readership as a first priority, above their sustainable fleet goals. 

“We need to get through our current travails in order to survive and thrive, and then we can move forward with our commitment for an all-electric fleet,” Board Member Deborah Dawson said. “But that time is not here yet and I hope the community will understand.”

Rosenbloom-Jones said the new buses from Gillig will have stricter lower-emission standards, and will be more sustainable than earlier models of diesel buses.

There has not yet been a decision about when or if any of the Proterra buses will return to service.


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