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  • Writer's pictureTalia Hill

Capital Metro to begin first electric bus yard

Tuesday, October 29, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

The Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority is laying the groundwork for an electric bus yard to store and charge the city’s first battery electric buses as early as next fall.

The agency’s board of directors unanimously approved a $7.5 million contract with M.A. Smith Contracting on Monday to build the North Operations facility, which will eventually have enough charging equipment for 174 electric buses.

The board discussed lingering concerns over battery technology – highlighting questions of travel range and charging infrastructure – in August when it approved purchase of six electric buses from New Flyer of America. Since then, eight of New Flyer’s electric buses were indefinitely pulled from the streets in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and replaced with diesel buses early this month due to unexpected issues with charging equipment.

Noting that the Austin region hasn’t yet tested the technology, Board Member Eric Stratton said the plan seemed like a “really large leap.”

“We’re putting an awful lot of money into building this thing out to a really large size with anticipation for supporting 174 electric buses when right now we’ve got 10,” he said. “We haven’t even put one yet on the ground.”

Capital Metro is sourcing its first wave of 10 electric buses from two different manufacturers, Proterra and New Flyer. The four Proterra vehicles will be arriving first, but all 10 buses will be in operation by October of next year.

Among other reasons, the agency chose to use two manufacturers in its initial pilot phase to compare and contrast which vehicles work best for the city. Stratton stressed the need for flexibility to also use the facility for other types of vehicles, like diesel or biofuel, if the pilot doesn’t work out as planned.

Ken Cartwright, vice president of capital projects, said the facility could accommodate any type of bus if for some reason electrification doesn’t work out. In addition, he said, the agency is running low on space: “Regardless of the type of bus we buy, we need this amount of space to house buses for the foreseeable future.”

The bus yard will be built over what was previously a Serta mattress factory. The agency kicked off the conversion early this year with demolition of the factory, leaving the site an empty concrete slab.

This contract, Cartwright said, is simply to run electrical conduit underground so that the infrastructure is there when the agency decides to install actual charging infrastructure over time. That process, he said, will come to the board in stages with separate contracts. The first contract to pull electricity for the first 10 electric buses will come up in the next few months.

Around the same time, Cartwright said, the agency will present the board with a plan for electrification of the facility, currently being crafted by Capital Metro’s engineers and Austin Energy.

As the yard develops, Cartwright said it may also incorporate solar panels for the entire North Operations facility, either as part of the bus yard or elsewhere on the site.

Board Member Jeff Travillion motioned approval of the contract with a second by Council Member Pio Renteria. The item passed 8-0.

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