Lextran, the transit authority in Lexington, recently received funding to purchase a small fleet of battery-powered electric buses and related equipment. Tom Martin discussed the details with Jill Barnett, Lextran assistant general manager.
Click here to hear the audio version of the interview: http://bit.ly/2jFUpyf
Q: First, some background on how this came about.
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A: Across the country, transit authorities are implementing cleaner technologies in terms of propulsion. Here in Lexington, a couple of years ago, we introduced hybrid electric vehicles into our fleet. And most recently, before the battery-electric, we introduced compressed natural gas. With so many vehicles running so many miles every single day, we want to do what we can to contribute to cleaner air. In 2015, there was a federal program called the “Low or No Emissions Vehicles Program.” And through that, we received funding to purchase five battery-electric vehicles and one on-street fast charger, as well as a depot charger that is in our maintenance shop at Loudon Avenue.
Q: On High Street near the post office, the big white thing over the bus stop, that’s the charger?
A: That is a charger. It uses conductive charging. It comes down overhead and makes contact with the vehicle and does a charge. Basically, that bus tops off its charge at the end of every loop, taking about 7 to 10 minutes depending on what the battery’s state of charge is when it approaches that station. It’s completely safe for the passengers and driver to stay onboard. If you didn’t know what was happening, you would have no idea. It’s very quiet. Usually no change to your experience as a rider.
Q: And how far on its route can a bus go on a single charge?
A: I guess that depends on the route that the bus is on. We have them ... on the South Broadway route right now, which is Harrodsburg Road, so when it leaves the transit center it travels all the way out to Palomar and then comes back. So, it can make that trip every time. It just needs to top off. It could make more than one trip, but then the charge time once it returns is even longer, and our routes aren’t very conducive to that.
Q: Do these e-Buses replace any other buses or are they an addition to what you already have in the fleet?
A: They are replacements for some 2003 vehicles that have gotten beyond their useful life. And we’re very glad to have them.
Q: They’re very quiet, aren’t they?
A: They are very quiet.
Q: And zero emissions?
A: Zero emissions from the tailpipe. So, we’re very proud of that.
Q: But since they rely on batteries, which after will be recharged, don’t they still at least indirectly rely on electricity that’s produced by fossil fuel?
A: Yes. Indirectly. But since we are in control of tailpipe emissions, that’s what we are focusing on.
Q: And how about the economics of e-Buses?
A: It is much more expensive to purchase an electric bus than a diesel bus. However, because we received the grant, we were able to receive these vehicles much cheaper than we would have been able to buy any other. Anytime you implement a new propulsion source like this, you do have some upfront capital expenses, the charging station being the main one. But over time, we hope to see a reduction in expenses because there’s less maintenance on the vehicle. There are fewer things to replace. And the cost of electricity is much more stable than the cost of diesel fuel. So, overall, we hope to recoup that.
Q: In a recent interview, you said that Lextran may be open to working with partners that might be interested in battery-electric technology. Can you elaborate on that?
A: Sure. Right now, we have one charge station — the downtown High Street charge station. Because of the way our system operates, in order to implement a large number of additional electric vehicles, we would need additional charging stations around town that are en route. Obviously, it would be nice to have the luxury to just go out and put a charger wherever we wanted to, but we don’t have that. A lot of the areas where they would go might be on private property. They might be on the state road. So we would need to partner in a number of ways, on both the logistics and location of the charger, as well as the cost of installation.
Q: There’s a study out there that says between 1995 and 2013 public transportation ridership grew over 37 percent, which is almost double the nation’s population growth. So it seems to say that more and more Americans are using public transportation. Are you seeing that here?
A: We are seeing that here. Our ridership has been very stable over the past seven years that I’ve been at Lextran. That’s my frame of reference. In some places throughout the city, it’s growing. And in other places, it’s remaining a little flat. However, there’s an increase in the aging population, a group that may not wish to drive anymore or may be unable to do so. So those folks are taking more trips on public transit, as well as millennials. More and more students are coming to college without a car. More teenagers are delaying the age at which they get their driver’s license, which I know to some parents probably sounds crazy. Their teenager probably can’t wait to get their license, but that is a trend that’s taking place across the country. In those instances, those folks are riding the bus more often. Here in Lexington, we have a lot of folks who ride our system to get to work or school as well as a large number that use it to get to medical appointments. And as we make improvements to our system, we hope that that just continues to grow.
Q: Do you see plans to make bus service here more accessible or maybe to increase the frequency of service?
A: I’ll speak to the accessibility question. We recognize that there are sometimes barriers to riding public transit for some folks. Sometimes that is the distance you might have to walk to get to your stop, or the waiting conditions at your stop, or the frequency with which that service travels nearest to your home or to your workplace. Over the next year, we will be taking an assessment of all of the bus stops throughout our system, which is close to a thousand. We’ll be working in conjunction with the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Metropolitan Planning Organization, looking at the accessibility of the stops, at the adjacency of a sidewalk that either Lextran has put there or the city or state has put there. Are there curb cuts available? How are the sightlines? Is there a bus shelter, a bench, a trash can? What passenger amenities are available? So, we’ll be taking on that assessment over the next year. I hope to have some enlightened choices about improvements that we can make at stops to make the rider experience a little better.
Q: Back to e-Buses. If folks have seen these and they’re intrigued and they’d like to hop on and try one out, are there specific routes where they can be found?
A: Yes. Right now, the route that the electric buses are on is 13, which is the South Broadway route. That route always boards from High Street. So it’s the backside of the transit center, right across from the post office and the parking lot that’s adjacent to Calvary Baptist Church. It’s a dollar to ride. Runs seven days a week. It’s an easy trip out and easy trip back. There are a lot of great destinations on the route: the awesome Beaumont Kroger, the Beaumont YMCA, St. Joseph Hospital, and lots of other places out there. It’s a quick trip, easy. You know, a lot of people are nervous to ride the bus if they’ve not done it before, saying “I don’t want to get lost!” If you just stay on that bus, you’re going to come right back to where you started.
Tom Martin’s Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader’s Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.