$900K worth of awards for Bloomington Transit buses to get first reading in front of city council

A total of $902,401 in competitive federal grants recently won by Bloomington Transit (BT) will allow the local public transit agency to buy three new buses—two for its BT Access para-transit service and one for the fixed-route service.

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A Bloomington Transit bus (diesel) navigates its way south under the railroad bridge at 10th Street.

All the buses are replacement vehicles, part of a regular program to keep the fleet up to date.

The new fixed-route bus will be a battery-electric vehicle, one of two that Bloomington Transit is now planning to order. The first battery-electric bus was already in the 2019 budget.

The electric buses are expected to arrive in late 2020 or early 2021.

A press release issued by the city about the federal grant awards touted the benefits of electric buses. They include: cost-effectiveness; zero direct carbon emissions; reduction in dependency on fossil fuels; and quietness of operation.

On Wednesday (Aug. 14, 2019) the city council is scheduled to get a first reading of the necessary appropriations ordinance. That ordinance totals $1,128,000 because of the 20-percent local share that BT will need to contribute towards the cost of the buses.

At a Friday work session in the first week of August, city councilmembers got a briefing from Bloomington Transit’s general manager, Lew May, about the appropriation ordinance.

R Bar Bus Age

Councilmembers asked questions that drew out some details about the BT bus fleet. May said the fleet includes 40 fixed-route buses—those are the 40-foot long vehicles that pick up passengers at bus stops. About 20 percent of those are hybrid-electric, May said.

The two battery-electric buses that BT is purchasing this year will replace BT’s first hybrid buses, which were bought in 2006. Additional hybrid buses already in the fleet—2009 and 2013 models—will need to be replaced in the coming years, May said.

Of the 40 buses in the fleet, 15 are earmarked as campus route vehicles, May said. The difference between a campus route and a downtown route is important for vehicle selection, because campus routes run along 10th Street, under the railroad bridge near Jefferson Street. A diesel bus will fit under the bridge, but hybrid-electric, battery-electric and compressed natural gas (CNG) buses won’t fit, because they’re too tall, May said.

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Extension of Law Lane shown in the 2018 Indiana University Subdistrict Master Plan

Councilmembers were keen to know how long it would take to replace all 25 non-campus-route buses with non-diesel buses. They were considering the possibility that the railroad bridge could become a barrier to having an all-electric fleet. May said, “We’re probably talking about eight to 10 years for replacement of the 25 vehicles.”

Data pulled by The Beacon from the National Transit Database shows that the average age of the BT fixed-route fleet for the last six years has been around eight to 10 years.

About the wait between ordering and receiving the new electric buses, May said long lead times, around 15 months, are typical, even for diesel buses. It’s because the market is small for transit buses in the United States, May said. There’s only 5,000 or 6,000 that are built  every year, May said, and there are only a few bus manufacturers.

At their Friday work session, councilmembers also briefly batted around the topic of a possible reconfiguration of streets so that buses would not need to drive under the 10th Street railroad bridge. One of those possibilities is included in the Indiana University master plan. It was revised in 2018 to show an extension of Law Lane eastward, with a roundabout at a Law Lane-10th Street intersection, a bit north of the railroad bridge.

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