- Lynn Hulsey Staff Writer
After nearly three years of testing the NexGen electric trolley Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority is buying 26 of the buses at a cost of about $1.2 million each and will put the first production model on the street by early 2019.
The RTA board of trustees authorized spending up to $57.4 million for the first 26 buses and parts, plus 15 more buses that will be bought once federal funding is lined up for the second round, said RTA Executive Director Mark Donaghy.
It is the largest bus contract in RTA history, Donaghy said.
The NexGen electric trolley bus costs 63 percent more than the $450,000 cost of a standard diesel transit bus, but has a 20-year, 800,000 mile life, compared to the diesel’s 12-year, 500,000 mile life, Donaghy said. Electric trolleys are cheaper to operate, better for the environment and quieter than a diesel bus, he said.
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“Using electric instead of diesel buses is a step towards a clean air environment for Dayton,” said Peggy Ann Berry, an occupational safety and health professional and Climate Reality Project leader in Dayton. “Diesel buses release dirty fossil fuels into the environment. These fossil fuels exacerbate asthma attacks as well as add to the cardiac burden of older adults.”
RTA is now finalizing the cost of the NexGen — short for Next Generation — after making several modifications to the prototype battery-electric powered trolley bus, which also had to pass federal testing before being approved for purchase. The feds are picking up 80 percent of the cost and the rest comes from the local sales tax and rider fares.
“We ran the heck out of them,” Donaghy said. “I very pleased with the bus. I think at the end of the day we have the best possible design.”
The NexGen will replace RTA’s aging, problem-plagued Electric Trolley Inc. buses, which have been in service since 1998 operating on seven routes over 124 miles of wire. Those buses cost $550,000 each from the now-defunct ETI, but Donaghy said a standard electric trolley now costs about $1 million. Diesel/electric hybrids can be bought for $750,000 but he said the ones RTA bought have been a disappointment and no more will be purchased.
RTA is rare in use of electric trolleys
RTA is one of only five transit systems in the U.S. that use electric trolleys. It was the first transit system to put into service these dual-mode NexGen trolley buses. The contract is with Kiepe Electric of Georgia, which provides electrification, a traction motor and poles on a bus body provided by subcontractor, Gillig Corp. of California.
Seattle and San Francisco transit systems have bought a similar electric trolley bus from New Flyer that uses Kiepe electrification. All three transit systems are taking advantage of advances in battery technology that would have made it impossible only a few years ago to power a heavy-duty urban transit bus on battery power for much longer than it took to navigate around an obstacle.
Unlike a typical trolley bus powered by overhead electrified wires, the NexGen trolley can drive 15 miles off wire fully loaded at 50 miles per hour powered by its battery, which is charged while the bus is on-wire, Donaghy said.
“I think that’s the way to go. All across the country now it looks like everybody is looking at battery buses,” said Harvey Hylton, a retired RTA engineer who managed the RTA trolley fleet and sat on the selection committee that picked the NexGen buses.
‘Batteries are the future’
“Batteries are the future of transportation,” Hylton said. “I never thought I would see a battery doing what it is.”
An increasing number of non-trolley, battery-electric buses are being added in cities, including Nashville and Louisville, and rely on fast-charge stations located along bus routes. But those buses are more often used on downtown circulator routes rather than getting the heavy-duty use required of electric trolley fleets.
“Public transit agencies are at the forefront of clean technologies implementation since they are able to analyze what are the best technologies for their fleets,” said Jeff Hiott, director of operations and standards at the American Public Transportation Association. “Advancements in battery-electric technology have resulted in public transit buses with zero emissions being added into service by U.S. transit systems at a very fast pace.”
RTA trolleys provide about 2.4 million rides annually.
The transit system operated four prototype NexGen buses on regular routes to determine which of two choices to go with. The model chosen is powered off-wire by a 3,000-pound Lithium Titanate Oxide battery with a 12-year lifespan. The battery charges on line.
The second prototype uses a diesel engine and generator rather than a battery to power it off line and RTA was not satisfied with how that bus performed, Donaghy said.
Both prototypes - purchased for $1.4 million each - will remain in RTA’s 257-vehicle fleet, which also includes full-size diesel, diesel/electric hybrids, trolleys, and paratransit vehicles.
The testing revealed some small issues and larger ones that will be corrected in production. Some were simple, like changing the location of a mirror for the driver and adding roof-mounted cameras for driver’s to monitor the poles connecting bus to wire. The poles were also lengthened to make them better hold on to the wire. A cooling unit was added to deal with an overheating battery compartment and the power steering pump was redesigned to make it quieter, Donaghy said.
His goal was for the NexGen bus to be able to run to the end of the line on wire and then on battery to nearly any point RTA serves in Montgomery County and part of Greene County on the Wright State University route.
He said the goal was reached on the routes that were picked for testing, and he believes the routes the NexGen bus runs on could expand. He said there were times the bus batteries lasted 20 miles, rather than the 15 they were designed for. There is room in the battery compartment to add cells later, Donaghy said.
“You’re always going to have some issues, but for me one of the things we learned is this bus is really high tech. Everything on it is programmable,” Donaghy said. “We’re coming from an (ETI trolley) bus that wasn’t even current technology when it was bought.”
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