Transportation

Glitches plague WTA's all-electric buses

Software troubles spark debate about future of electrics at agency
April 7, 2022 at 5:05 a.m.
One of two Whatcom Transportation Authority all-electric buses sits at a charging station at the agency's Bakerview Spur headquarters. Software problems have repeatedly taken the electric buses off the road.
One of two Whatcom Transportation Authority all-electric buses sits at a charging station at the agency's Bakerview Spur headquarters. Software problems have repeatedly taken the electric buses off the road. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

By RALPH SCHWARTZ
Staff Reporter

Whatcom Transportation Authority’s two electric buses are on the fritz.

A series of software glitches have plagued the battery-powered buses in WTA’s fleet since the agency acquired them in early 2021. As recently as last week, one of the two buses was in the shop with a malfunctioning drive train.

Earlier, both buses had problems with computer-controlled power steering. 

“We’ve had software upgrades throughout this last year, so they’re trying to improve — I don’t want to say ‘fix’ — just make the buses perform better,” WTA Fleet and Facilities Director Mike Bozzo said in an interview. 

Maintenance staff told WTA board members last month the performance hang-ups with the new buses weren't unexpected. WTA went through a similar break-in period with its hybrid buses several years ago.

“When we started this project, I anticipated some issues,” Bozzo told the board’s executive committee on March 10. “But we’re working through them.”

One of the more serious trouble spots with the electric buses was their heaters  — especially during the bitter-cold stretch in late December. They were drawing too much power from the battery packs. 

“We were losing about 50 to 60 miles” of range during the cold spell, Bozzo said March 10. WTA installed diesel heaters on the buses to get them up to their summer performance standard of 150 miles on a charge.

WTA would like a different heater fix in place by 2040. The agency intends to operate a zero-emission fleet by then.

WTA’s growing pains with the electric-powered buses have raised concerns among some board members. A majority of members appear to be in favor of gradually converting the fleet to all-electric, as part of a broader community effort to reduce carbon emissions and thus the local contribution to climate change.

Board member and Ferndale City Council member Ali Hawkinson is among those who aren’t convinced.

“My concern with that is the performance that we’ve seen from the electric buses thus far,” Hawkinson said about transitioning to electric. “I think it’s too soon to know.”

Lynden Mayor Scott Korthuis, another WTA board member, asked staff for a report that would compare the costs and performance of the diesel, hybrid and electric buses side-by-side, so the board could make an informed decision about future purchases.

Bozzo pushed back a little on Korthuis' suggestion, saying such a report would be premature while his crews and Gillig, the bus manufacturer, were still working out the kinks on the new electrics. 

“The data, if they’re not running properly, is difficult to come up with, but I’ll work on that,” Bozzo said.

“I can tell you right now that the cost per mile for fuel is roughly half,” Bozzo added, even before the recent sharp spike in prices for diesel.

“Ultimately, if they are working, maintenance costs should drop quite a bit as well,” WTA General Manager Les Reardanz said.

The conversation came up as the board was mulling whether to approve the purchase of eight new buses, all diesel, that would arrive in late 2023 and run for the next 12 years.

“I can’t get my brain wrapped around why we’re not buying electric buses right now,” board member and Whatcom County Council member Todd Donovan said at the March 17 board meeting. He alluded to recent WTA windfalls: $39 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds the transit agency has received, along with millions more still to come from Move Ahead Washington, the 16-year transportation package the state Legislature passed last month.

“We’re sitting on more money than we’re probably ever going to have, and we’re making a decision today to have buses that are diesel that’ll be in service until 2035,” Donovan said.

How fast WTA transitions to electric may become clearer in May, when the board discusses its long-term spending plan in light of its newfound revenue. Meanwhile, Gillig is delivering two more electric buses to WTA in January 2023.

“I think they’re going to be better,” Bozzo said of the next two electric buses, noting that WTA’s first two were among the first 50 Gillig had ever built. (Hawkinson joked at the March 10 meeting that WTA “should get some kind of credit for being the beta testers.”)

“Both WTA and Gillig are learning from these,” Bozzo said in an interview, “upgrading equipment, upgrading software, and so … these two (new) buses will have the same upgrades.”

“I’m pretty confident they’re going to be running.”

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