Whatcom Transportation Authority: Hybrids unreliable, won’t be part of next bus purchase

Hybrid buses are not on Whatcom Transportation Authority’s shopping list for the next two years because of equipment problems with the hybrids currently in the agency’s fleet.

An apparent defect in the buses’ cooling pumps have caused the hybrids to break down “about 10 times” while carrying passengers since the buses were put into service in February 2013, said Mike Bozzo, WTA director of fleet and facilities.

“When (the pumps) do fail, the bus stops and it requires the bus to be towed in,” Bozzo said.

“It is a disruption, and it affects traffic and the passengers,” he said. “We want to make sure we know all our issues on our hybrids before we commit again.”

Computers in the hybrids’ complex electrical system are also reporting faults in the electrical connections, Bozzo said.

WTA is testing a new pump design and is upgrading the electrical connections, he said.

The frequent repairs have not created unanticipated expenses for WTA because the buses are under an extended, five-year warranty the agency purchased, Bozzo said.

When WTA officials initially scheduled the next round of bus purchases for 2015 and 2016, they earmarked enough money so all the buses could be diesel-electric hybrids, which each cost about $200,000 more than conventional buses. The agency’s board of directors is expected to vote Thursday, May 21, to purchase seven diesel buses.

The new vehicles, with a base price of $413,859, would replace three 1997 buses and three 2004 models. The seventh bus would enable WTA to accommodate additional runs to Kendall, and between Cordata and downtown Bellingham.

The total contract for the seven buses, including tax, radios, cameras, air conditioning and other incidentals, is $3.68 million. WTA would receive a federal grant to cover 80 percent of the cost.

WTA had planned to spread the purchase of the seven buses over the next two years. Gillig of Hayward, Calif., which manufactures buses for WTA, told the agency that buses ordered this year won’t be delivered until late 2016 or early 2017. Given the long wait, WTA officials decided to put in the full order all at once.

Transit agencies over the past decade have been willing to pay more for hybrids, which are more fuel-efficient and quieter, and were described in a 2013 WTA press release as costing less to maintain than the 18-year-old diesel buses they replaced. WTA also said greenhouse gas emissions from hybrids would be 40 percent lower than the old diesels.

As of 2013, a total of 13 percent of buses used for public transit were hybrids or all-electric, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

Transit agencies recently have been reconsidering whether hybrid buses are a good investment. The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority in Michigan, cited by the association as having the largest percentage of hybrid buses in the United States in 2013 at 59 percent, decided in November to purchase just three hybrids out of 27 buses in its next order.

WTA has eight hybrids in its 57-vehicle fleet, or 14 percent.

High maintenance costs for hybrids and improved fuel efficiency in diesel buses meant the Michigan agency could not recoup the higher upfront cost over the lifetime of the hybrids, according to a report in the Ann Arbor News.

The popularity of hybrid buses varies from agency to agency, said Joe Policarpio, vice president of sales and marketing for Gillig.

While brake linings, for example, last longer in hybrid buses, Policarpio said, agencies in some cases need to replace the hybrids’ batteries, which can cost about $35,000 each.

“Agencies are still buying hybrid buses,” he said. “Some of the customers that had purchased hybrids are not buying hybrids. ... Each one of them does their own evaluation to determine that and pencil that out.”

WTA will continue to keep its options open with hybrids. The agency also is looking at the next wave of alternative power, the all-electric bus. A four-day trial run in October with an electric bus built by BYD Motors, Inc., was not a complete success, Bozzo said.

“I liked the bus itself; it was very innovative,” he said. “The motors they put in it weren’t strong enough to handle the terrain around Bellingham. They took that information, they are going to incorporate bigger motors in the bus, and hopefully have those out sometime this year for a demo.”

“Whenever they have (an electric bus) to demonstrate, we’ll look at them and evaluate them for our needs,” he said. “And that’s becoming more and more mainstream in future years.”