Around Virginia, transit agencies navigate the transition to electric buses

Growing demand for electric buses faces construction, funding and charging challenges

By: - December 2, 2022 12:02 am

A view of the Alexandria Transit Company’s electric buses in Northern Virginia (Courtesy Alexandria Transit Company)

As more transit agencies in Virginia roll out electric buses to reduce environmental impacts, the need to recharge those buses throughout the day remains a chief concern.

To address that challenge, officials from DASH in Alexandria and Blacksburg Transit, both early adopters of electric buses, said they are experimenting with solutions like overhead chargers and extra facilities.

“Range is now going to be a new factor and a new parameter that will [have] a large influence on how we deploy the fleet,” said Raymond Mui, assistant general manager with Alexandria DASH. “How we manage them and how we transition our fleet — that’s something new that neither DASH or most other transit agencies have had to manage as an operating factor.”

Today, Virginia has 26 battery-electric buses in operation, representing 1% of the statewide transit fleet as of August. Alexandria, with 14, has deployed the most electric buses, ahead of Hampton Roads and Blacksburg. The number of electric buses does not include those owned and operated by schools in a statewide system of 132 school districts. 

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Many of those were acquired in response to local government directives to move toward zero-emission fleets.

Transit leaders said there are benefits to using low- or no-emission buses, including reducing carbon emissions and limiting noise pollution. Data has also found potential costs of operation and maintenance are lower for electric vehicles than gas-powered ones. Earlier this year, a law was passed ordering state agencies to buy or lease electric cars rather than gas-powered ones unless a lifetime cost calculator “clearly indicates” that the gas version is cheaper.

Mui said it’s not easy to implement a fully zero-emissions fleet given technology and infrastructure constraints. Still, he said the benefits are “well worth it” for current community members, “but also future generations of this community to come.”

Local challenges

How long an electric bus can operate with a single charge and how long it takes to recharge can vary depending on the type of charger, vehicle and battery size.

Brian Booth, director of Blacksburg Transit, said electric buses take between two and three hours to charge at the agency’s maintenance facility. Buses can take 15 to 20 minutes on rapid chargers, one of which Blacksburg Transit is looking to purchase, he said. 

Other factors can also affect charges. Officials said batteries lose charge faster during the colder months because they need to keep the cabins heated. 

As a possible solution, Blacksburg is developing an overhead pantograph charger, or a street-side charging station, on the campus of Virginia Tech to help charge buses during routes.

Alexandria is constructing a second facility to charge vehicles while studying the development of stations where buses can charge while in service.

As funding became available, Booth said it was “very useful” for the agency to establish a relationship with its electric utility. Booth said Blacksburg started discussions with Appalachian Power as the agency was applying for funding.

Appalachian Power provided tips on necessary infrastructure upgrades, which were minor because the operations facility is located at an industrial park, and on how the agency could avoid extra charges by avoiding charging during peak electric use times.

“It’s definitely very important to engage with the utility provider and do it sooner rather than later,” Booth said.

A view of Blacksburg Transit electric bus. (Courtesy Photo)

Growing demand faces manufacturing challenges

Grant Sparks, director of transit planning for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transit, said demand is high for low- and zero-emission buses.

But there can be long gaps between a local agency’s decision to purchase an electric bus and the time of delivery. 

Larger buses take between 18 and 24 months to construct due to the limited number of manufacturers in the country. Prior to the pandemic, smaller buses typically took six to 10 months.

However, since the pandemic, that timetable has slowed due to supply chain issues and silicon chip shortages. Now, smaller buses can take up to three years. 

The electric vehicle industry hopes two major pieces of federal legislation could speed up manufacturing. In August, Democratic President Joe Biden signed into law the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, which provides the Department of Commerce with over $50 billion in subsidies to domestic chip manufacturers to fill shortages. The Inflation Reduction Act includes tax credits and incentives for new electric vehicles and charging infrastructure.

DRPT spokesperson Amy Friedenberger said it’s too early to know if either law will impact the delivery of charging equipment.

Both Blacksburg and Alexandria received their buses in 2020 after ordering them before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

State support

As transit agencies inch closer to deploying more low-emission vehicles, DRPT is developing a transit electrification study that will serve as a template for agencies interested in converting their fleets to electric.

“What we’re trying to do is help our transit agencies in Virginia with the key considerations as they look to convert their fleets to low and no-emission transit buses,” Sparks said.

Sparks expects the study, which is more than a year from being finalized, to help transit providers create infrastructure to power their vehicles and understand the costs of purchasing them. It will include information on not just electric buses, but also compressed natural gas and hydrogen fuel cell buses. 

Statewide planning funds will cover the 20% match for the study, along with federal funds. 

Sparks said a majority of Virginia’s 39 transit agencies lack experience with low- or zero-emission bus technology. Among the aid provided by DRPT has been assistance with grant writing as agencies seek federal funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

While Virginia has put $39.9 million toward the purchase of battery-electric buses – using funds from the state’s share of the 2016 Volkswagen settlement — transit agencies have sought external funds for nine buses.

DRPT has provided technical assistance and letters of support for grant applications, as well as hosting a webinar explaining the benefits of electric buses and allowing agencies to share their experiences. 

Friedenberger said DRPT has assisted such agencies as OmniRide in the Prince William area, DASH and Blacksburg Transit, although none have received funding for their low- or zero-emission bus applications.

However, Suffolk Transit and the Greater Richmond Transit Company have received funding without any assistance from DRPT.


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Nathaniel Cline
Nathaniel Cline

Nathaniel is an award-winning journalist who's been covering news across the country since 2007, including politics at The Loudoun Times-Mirror and The Northern Neck News in Virginia as well as sports for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. He has also hosted podcasts, worked as a television analyst for Spectrum Sports, and appeared as a panelist for conferences and educational programs. A graduate of Bowie State University, Nathaniel grew up in Hawaii and the United Kingdom as a military brat. Five things he must have before leaving home: his cellphone, Black Panther water bottle, hand sanitizer, wedding ring and Philadelphia Eagles keychain.