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Minimal bumps encountered in RFTA’s electric bus roll-out in Aspen, valley

With the exception of one snowy day earlier this month, the new multimillion-dollar electric buses that rolled out in the upper valley Dec. 3 are proving their worth, according to transportation officials.

“You get the specs on paper but until you get them up here you don’t know,” said John Kruger, the city of Aspen’s director of transportation. “I think we made the right decision.”

The city has four of the battery-powered, electric buses running on in-town routes and the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority is using the other four up and down the valley.

They have a range of around 130 miles and go for about 10 hours and still have 45% of battery power, said Kurt Ravenschlag, RFTA’s chief operating officer.

They’ve been tweaking with the settings on the buses since they arrived this summer and fall, and with some more changes, Ravenschlag estimated that they’ll go as far 200 miles before needing a charge.

“These buses are highly technical; they are basically computers,” he said. “We’ve programmed them for our operating environment and they are exceeding our expectations, mostly with the range.”

Some riders reported that the electric bus on the Hunter Creek route was sliding around and being late shortly after it was introduced.

Ravenschlag said it’s a little dicey near the Park Avenue stop because it’s icy all winter and there was a day where it had snowed so much that all buses were having issues.

“It was a day that Aspen is as worse as it gets,” he said. “But we aren’t seeing any other issues.”

These particular buses, called the New Flyer and manufactured in Minnesota, have not been tested in mountainous environments.

“It’s a pilot program. We’re learning and making tweaks and RFTA is accumulating information as they go,” Krueger said.

The buses, which cost about $1 million each, take about three hours to charge at RFTA’s maintenance facility near the airport to get between a 85% to 90% charge.

The buses, charging stations and related infrastructure cost $9.2 million.

About $4.2 million of the expense was covered by federal and state transportation grants. RFTA, Aspen, Snowmass Village and Pitkin County teamed to provide the other $5 million. Holy Cross Energy worked with RFTA to install sufficient bus-charging infrastructure, establish a cheaper utility rate for strategic time-of-day charging and is helping the bus agency assess renewable energy options.

The buses have zero emissions at the tail pipe, lower operating costs, an automated passenger information system and automated vehicle location system.

Local elected officials funded the program to reduce noise and the bus system’s carbon footprint.

Krueger said the city’s goal is to have 30% of its transportation fleet electrified in the next decade.

With just a couple of weeks in service, drivers are still getting a handle on how the New Flyers operate in different conditions. A driver on a recent route apologized after the bus lurched hard as it came to a complete stop, saying he was still “working on that final stop.”

“We’ll move the vehicles around based on conditions,” Ravenschlag said. “These are $1 million buses and no one wants to be the first one to put a dent in them.”

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