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DASH Explores Future Electric Bus Implementation

Published by Passenger Transport

One mid-size public transit agency located just outside Washington, DC, has been especially proactive in assessing its current fleet needs and exploring the potential costs and benefits of electric bus technology. The Alexandria (VA) Transit Company, more commonly known as “DASH,” has been conducting a comprehensive evaluation of the technology and is considering a gradual transition to electric buses over the next decade.

With 12 fixed bus routes and the free King Street Trolley, DASH carries nearly four million annual passengers throughout its 16-square-mile service area. DASH serves as an important regional link to five Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Metrorail stations and Virginia Railway Express commuter rail. The agency currently operates an 85-vehicle fleet including 52 hybrids and 33 older diesel models.

After seven years of purchasing hybrid-electric buses, DASH discontinued its hybrid bus procurements in 2017 and is buying 27 clean diesel replacement buses over the next 18 months.

“The switch to clean diesel was driven by a desire to improve vehicle reliability and reduce capital costs,” said John Lanocha, director of maintenance at DASH. “It also allows us to remove older high-emission diesel buses from service earlier, and meet our State of Good Repair requirements.”

In the longer term, however, DASH recognizes the potential of electric bus technology and is looking into how and when the transition from clean diesel to electric buses could occur. To this end, DASH staff have toured an electric bus manufacturing facility, tested electric buses extensively in revenue service, held multiple public demonstration events, met with local utility representatives, applied for multiple grants in support of electric bus implementation, requested Capital Improvement Program (CIP) funds for electric buses from the city of Alexandria and formed an Electric Bus Working Group comprised of both DASH and city staff.

Learning What’s Available and How to Potentially Fund It
The initial decision to consider electrification of the DASH fleet was made by DASH leadership and the board of directors as a corollary of the switch from hybrid to clean diesel. In view of the city’s commitment to sustainability through its “Eco-City Alexandria” initiative, DASH sought to make a long-term commitment toward achieving a zero-emission bus fleet. The switch away from hybrid buses is seen as a positive step in that direction.

“The clean diesel buses will also serve as a highly-reliable sub-fleet that could mitigate any service disruptions from new, potentially less reliable electric buses,” Lanocha explained.

Following the decision to pursue electric buses, DASH staff began to research the subject extensively by talking to fellow public transit agencies that had initiated electric bus pilots, contacting the local electric utility company and reaching out to electric bus manufacturers to learn more about the technology. Several members of the agency’s executive management team were invited to the New Flyer Vehicle Innovation Center in Anniston, AL, where they observed the electric bus manufacturing process and participated in a three-day electric bus workshop.

“The trip to the electric bus plant was extremely beneficial in terms of allowing us to better understand the technical specifications,” noted DASH Assistant General Manager Raymond Mui. “We were able to share that new knowledge with our Electric Bus Working Group and get a better idea of what the implementation would require.”

After becoming more familiar with the technology, DASH staff made arrangements with two electric bus manufacturers to borrow demonstration buses for revenue testing and public display.

DASH staff show off the “Bus of the Future” and provide free rides to community members during a recent electric bus demonstration event.

The first electric bus demonstration week, in early February, featured a 40-foot, 200-kWh New Flyer Xcelsior Charge. During its week-long visit to Alexandria, the bus was put into extensive revenue service across a wide range of operating conditions and was displayed at several public events.

By testing the bus in revenue service and collecting a wide variety of telemetric data, DASH staff were able to observe how the bus would perform on actual DASH routes in colder winter weather. The public events—which included a press conference, public displays and a series of test rides—were also highly successful in raising awareness and generating feedback from city leaders, stakeholders and many other community members.

A second demonstration week, with a newer Proterra 440-kWh electric bus, is planned for late May.

In addition to exploring the technology and testing its capabilities, DASH has begun to identify potential funding sources for the future purchase of electric buses, bus chargers, maintenance equipment, facility upgrades and improvements to utility infrastructure that would be needed to accommodate additional electric capacity.

Strategies have included additional funding requests through the city’s CIP process to support a gradual transition to electric buses starting as early as FY 2021, and the pursuit of several regional and state grant programs. DASH has also applied for electric bus funding through the highly-publicized Volkswagen settlement program.

Lessons Learned and Looking Forward
Although DASH is still examining possible fleet electrification, there are a few early takeaways. The agency has developed a better understanding of electric bus technology and the local context by seeking input from all rele­vant sources and stakeholders, both internal and external.

DASH tested this New Flyer all-electric bus in extensive revenue service and displayed it at several public events.

In terms of electric bus technology itself, DASH staff have been impressed by recent improvements in battery capacity and operating range. During revenue testing, the electric batteries seemed to perform as well on hilly routes as they did in flatter areas. There was also less distinction than expected between battery performance on routes operating on streets in the busy central business district and suburban arterials or the nearby interstate.

Due to the cold weather, however, the energy consumption required to operate the heater was markedly higher than expected, accounting for 30 percent of total battery usage.
Based on this ongoing evaluation, DASH believes that electric buses are getting closer to widespread adoption but are still several years away due to their higher price tag relative to other bus types and the added costs of infrastructure improvements and operational changes that would be required.

“As battery range continues to go up and implementation costs continue to come down, DASH will be paying close attention,” noted Mui. “We are planning to start with an electric bus pilot program in the next three to four years so that we can continue following through on our commitment to provide sustainable transportation options for the city of Alexandria and its residents.”

To learn more about this initiative, contact Martin Barna, DASH director of planning and scheduling.

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