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All-electric bus passes tough WTA test: Alabama Hill

Video: WTA tests an all-electric bus up Alabama Hill

Whatcom Transportation Authority officials heard a sales pitch Thursday, Aug. 20, from representatives of electric-bus manufacturer Proterra. Then came the big test: taking the bus up Alabama Hill. Ralph Schwartz | The Bellingham Herald
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Whatcom Transportation Authority officials heard a sales pitch Thursday, Aug. 20, from representatives of electric-bus manufacturer Proterra. Then came the big test: taking the bus up Alabama Hill. Ralph Schwartz | The Bellingham Herald

Top officials at Whatcom Transportation Authority experienced something new on a bus ride on Thursday, Aug. 20.

An all-electric bus made it up Alabama Hill at something faster than a crawl.

Salesmen from Proterra, a South Carolina-based electric bus manufacturer, took their 40-foot model up the hill Thursday with WTA’s top brass on board, including General Manager Pete Stark. With hardly a whine from the motor, powered by eight batteries under the floor boards, the bus was still going 20 mph when it topped the hill.

SUVs and pickups were passing the bus easily on the way up, but it did much better than the last all-electric that tried to climb Alabama Street.

GreenPower Motor Company gave it a shot during a similar sales visit on July 29, but the company’s bus had slowed to 5 mph by the time it had reached the top.

When BYD Motors was here in October 2014 for a four-day trial on WTA routes, with passengers, the company’s electric bus stayed on flat ground.

“BYD did not attempt Alabama Street hill with the bus they brought last year but told me they will be back in the future with a more powerful bus,” said Mike Bozzo, WTA’s director of fleet and facilities.

“Bellingham has a unique terrain that causes problems for them,” Bozzo said of the all-electrics.

Transit officials have set no timeline for acquiring electric buses; they are only gathering information on how the buses might fit into their long-term plans, Bozzo said.

This would be new technology for WTA, which has a fleet of 57 full-size buses: 49 that run on diesel and eight diesel-electric hybrids put into service in 2013.

The Proterra bus had some compelling selling points: It hit 70 mph on Interstate 5 and can be charged in less than 10 minutes. Then again, it costs $779,000, compared to $414,000 each for the seven diesel buses WTA purchased in May.

WTA decided for now to forgo adding more hybrids to its fleet because of mechanical problems related to the new technology.

As for the all-electrics, WTA could benefit from waiting. The technology and the cost are bound to get better.

“Prices are going down every year,” Proterra sales director Mac Burns said.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BhamPolitics.

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