On one of City Utilities' new electric buses on January 7, 2022. (Photo by Bruce Stidham)

Everett Gardner, a longtime driver for City Utilities Transit, said he and his co-workers had heard talk about battery electric buses for years. They were “skeptical” of the new technology, he said.

“We had the mindset of, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’” Gardner said as he maneuvered CU’s bus No. 215 north on Campbell Avenue. 

No. 215 is one of two new electric buses in CU’s fleet. 

“But this is really a step up,” he said. “If this is the future, I welcome it.” 

The clean and quiet of battery electric buses

Carolyn McGhee seen here takes her first ride on one of City Utilities’ new electric buses on January 7, 2022. (Photo by Bruce Stidham)

On a recent day in January, the Springfield Daily Citizen caught the No. 215 bus at the Library Station and rode for about an hour with Gardner at the wheel. 

The reporter and photographer were in good hands: Gardner has been named Driver of the Year three times during his 28-year career with CU Transit. He knew the name of nearly every single person who got on his bus that morning.

Asked what he likes most about his job, Gardner laughed and responded: “What don’t I like?

“I could go anywhere and drive freight. I’d rather drive people around,” he said. “I love to drive. This is customer service to me, and I love that. I love dealing with people.”

At one point during the ride, Gardner turned off the heat and pointed out that the only noise to be heard was coming from other vehicles on the road. He said he sometimes forgets he’s in an electric bus and briefly wonders if the engine died when he stops at a red light. 

Gardner said he loves to open up the windows on nice days and enjoy the breeze – something he can’t really do on the diesel-powered buses because of the exhaust. 

“Just cutting back on the diesel exhaust, hours and hours of driving,” Gardner said. “Some of the drivers get irritation to the eyes and have allergies.”

Battery electric buses could improve the air quality in Springfield because they produce significantly less greenhouse gas emissions than diesel-powered buses. 

In fact, replacing all of the country’s diesel-powered transit buses with electric buses could eliminate more than 2 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year, according to EnvironmentAmerica.org.

But Springfield’s CU Transit isn’t looking to replace its entire fleet of buses any time soon, explained Transit Director Matt Crawford. The technology is very new and the buses are costly. Plus, it will take some time for the maintenance department and drivers to get used to the technology, as well as time to weigh the cost and benefits compared to the diesel buses. 

Rather than purchasing an entire fleet of electric buses, Springfield’s CU Transit opted to start small with just two battery electric buses: Bus No. 215 and No. 218. 

If the testing goes well and funding is available, CU’s goal is to have 24 percent of its fleet converted to electric by 2026, Crawford said. 

The first two buses first hit the streets of Springfield in September 2021, doing “test runs” on random routes nearly every day. 

(Note to riders: The CU Transit schedule doesn’t specify which routes the electric buses will run. But if you notice your bus is taller than usual and you don’t have to raise your voice to have a conversation, you are on an electric bus.)

The total capital project for the two electric buses, including charging stations and training, was roughly $2 million. The cost was mostly covered by two grants: a $1.6 million Low or No Emissions Grant from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and a nearly $370,000 VW Settlement Grant from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. 

Crawford called it a “great testing opportunity” for CU Transit that came at minimal expense to City Utility ratepayers. 

“We’re truly using these two buses that we’ve got as a learning tool to make sure that we understand how large electrified vehicles work,” he said. “We may be able to use the information we gather to work with other large fleets.”

Crawford said his department has estimated the two electric buses combined will save about 18,000 gallons of diesel and 240 quarts of oil annually.

‘These don’t hesitate. They just go’

One of City Utilities’ new electric buses seen here at the downtown bus depot on January 7, 2022. (Photo by Bruce Stidham)

In addition to the cleaner air, bus driver Gardner also likes how the electric buses can accelerate more quickly than the diesel buses – not because he likes to drive fast, but because it is safer when merging into traffic. 

“These don’t hesitate. They just go,” he said. “It’s important to get back in flow of traffic without obstructing.”

At one of Gardner’s stops, Springfield resident Carolyn McGhee got on board and sat near the front. 

McGhee is visually impaired and serves as the president of the National Federation of the Blind – Springfield Chapter and a member of the Transit Advisory Council. On that morning, she was on her way to a meeting with city officials regarding pedestrian safety. 

McGhee said it was her first time riding an electric bus. But she knew it was an electric bus because she heard the “warning beeps” as it approached the bus stop. 

The beeps alert visually impaired people, such as McGhee. The regular diesel buses make plenty of noise on their own and don’t have the beeps.

“It was interesting,” she said of her ride on the electric bus. 

According to Crawford,  electric cars such as Tesla are regulated to have a manufactured sound to alert visually impaired people to their presence. 

“This regulation has not made it to transit vehicles yet, but manufacturers are getting ready,” Crawford said in an email. “We worked with Gillig, our manufacturer, and our vehicle maintenance department to make sure there is some sound available. The sound is a beep that is triggered by any right signal use including the four way (hazards).”

Crawford said he’s heard concerns about the electric buses from people who know about other cities like Philadelphia that have entire fleets of electric buses that are inoperational. The main problem with Philadelphia’s buses, which are manufactured by Proterra, is they are prone to cracked chassis (frame).

CU has trusted GILLIG to make its buses for years, Crawford said. 

“We have a standard for a heavy-duty frame for fixed-route buses,” Crawford said. “Currently, the only two manufacturers that meet all the other criteria by the FTA purchasing standards are GILLIG and New Flyer. GILLIG typically wins our low bids when we go out for buses. And they have great chassis.

“In the event that we’re in an accident, this bus does its job,” he said, pointing to the buses parked inside the barn. “It’s number one job you would think is to transport people, but for me it’s to keep people safe. And these buses pass that test time and time again.”

The battery pack unit inside one of City Utilities’ new electric buses in December 2021. (Photo by Bruce Stidham)

All of the CU bus drivers are trained to operate the electric buses. And so far, Crawford said he’s hearing that most of the drivers are enjoying the experience and the technology. 

When speaking to the Daily Citizen on his bus route, Gardner echoed that. 

“It is a number one pick by drivers and I see why,” he said. “Now that I’m driving it, I don’t want to give it up.”

Among the noticeable differences for drivers, the electric buses have more torque, particularly as they take off, than the diesel-powered buses. In fact, the electric buses can actually gain speed when going up a hill, Crawford said. 

But when the buses take off from a stopped position, they expend a lot of their battery power. If a driver doesn’t take it easy on take off or on hills, they could wind up with low batteries before it’s time to come back to the barn. 

Braking, too, is very different in the electric buses. 

“If you take your foot off the gas, it’s going to immediately start regenerative braking,” Crawford said. 

He paused for a moment and then corrected himself: “I said gas. I mean the pedal. It’s not gas.”

“It is going to start regenerative braking, which has a similar feel to engine braking in a diesel bus,” Crawford continued, “but it’s more aggressive and that’s because it is trying to recover the electric charging back into the battery.”

Another difference for drivers is the steering is a little bit stiffer. This is because the electric buses are a bit more top heavy. The stiffer steering forces the driver to take curves slowly. 

Crawford said they are using this testing period to give drivers a chance to get used to the technology. At some point, they will start analyzing why some drivers or routes are causing the bus to use up battery power faster: does one route have more hills than others or are some drivers taking off a little faster?

“We are going to take the next few months and really look at what is happening and what are the things they need to train the bus operators to do to get the most out of the batteries,” Crawford said. “If you drive this right and drive correctly, you can recoup a higher percentage of your electricity as you stop, and you just let the bus do most of the stopping.

“We haven’t really pushed the drivers yet to come back with as much charge as possible,” he said. “We were hoping to get 200 miles out of this. Right now, I think we’re seeing about 150 (and being brought back to the bus barn with 10 percent charge remaining).” 

For passengers, the biggest difference between the electric buses and the diesel buses is the noise – or lack thereof.

“It’s considerably quieter. On a diesel bus with HVAC and just the normal engine running, you have to elevate your voice to have a conversation,” Crawford said. “But on this vehicle, really the only noise that you’re getting is general road noise and whatever HVAC is running on the bus at the time.”

The buses have six batteries: two in the rear (where the engine usually is located), two are in the belly of the bus (between the wheels) and two are on top of the bus underneath fiberglass panels. 

Those fiberglass panels make the buses about 10 inches taller than CU’s regular buses. That meant – among the many tests the buses were put through – Crawford and his team had to determine if they could clear going under the railroad underpass on Grant Avenue, an overpass where big trucks sometimes get stuck if they are too tall

The electric buses passed that test with about a foot to spare. 

At this time, the buses go out on random routes for 10 hours at a time and come back to the CU Transit bus barn when they have roughly 10 percent battery remaining. 

“We have not run a test to see what happens when it goes down to zero. We will probably do that,” Crawford said when interviewed in December. “It has a low-charge mode of some kind and we want to see what happens for sure when it gets to that. I don’t know if it’s at 5 percent or lower. But at some point, I think it’s going to come to a crawl.”

As they continue to test the buses to learn what happens when the batteries are very low, it’s important they are close to CU Transit’s bus barn where the charging stations are housed so they don’t have to worry about towing the large buses. 

It takes about three and a half hours to fully charge a bus, Crawford said, or seven hours to charge them both. 

Again, if it all goes well with the two electric buses, CU Transit plans to have six buses (24 percent of its fleet) converted to electric battery buses by 2026. 

“That doesn’t mean that there may not be an option to go more than that,” he said. “But the range on (the electric) bus is 150 miles. The range on (a diesel) bus is 300 on one tank. You gain recovery cost on maintenance and fuel on (the electric) bus, but who knows what the battery life is going to be and what the cost to replace those batteries will be.”

“This is tried and true technology,” he said, first motioning to a diesel bus and then to an electric bus. “And this is up-and-coming, and we want to be a part of it.”

CU is planning to officially introduce the two electric buses to the public at an event on Earth Day April 22. Details will be announced later on CU’s social media.

Where did the funds come from? 

In 2019, Springfield’s CU Transit applied for and was granted a competitive $1.6 million Low or No Emissions Grant from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). 

The Low or No Emission competitive program provides funding to state and local governmental authorities for the purchase or lease of zero-emission and low-emission transit buses as well as acquisition, construction, and leasing of required supporting facilities.

According to the FTA’s website, CU Transit was to use the funds for the “purchase of battery electric buses to replace diesel buses that will have exceeded useful life, as well as charging stations and workforce development. “

In 2020, CU received nearly $370,000 VW Settlement Grant funds from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources

According to the Department of Natural Resources’ website, in 2016, the United States settled complaints against Volkswagen AG, et al. The settlement resolved claims that Volkswagen violated the Clean Air Act by selling approximately 590,000 vehicles with 2.0- and 3.0-liter diesel engines having emissions defeat devices. The vehicles were from model years 2009 to 2016.

Jackie Rehwald

Jackie Rehwald is a reporter at the Springfield Daily Citizen. She covers housing, homelessness, domestic violence and early childhood, among other public affairs issues. Her office line is 417-837-3659. More by Jackie Rehwald