The Charleston area’s public transit system is going green and quiet.
Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority will soon get its first electric buses, the first step in transitioning the entire fleet away from fuel-driven vehicles.
The Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments was awarded $1.5 million in funding recently as a part of the Federal Transportation Authority Low- or No-Emission Grant program.
It will buy three zero-emission, battery-electric vehicles from Greenville manufacturer Proterra, with whom it partnered on the grant application.
“It’s just a much more efficient, better way to propel buses in a cheaper and more environmentally friendly way and we’re interested in doing both of those things," said CARTA Chairman Mike Seekings.
The buses will be part of the CARTA fleet of roughly 100 vehicles, which has been managed by COG since 2015. The current fleet primarily comprises 1996 models that serviced the Atlanta Olympics.
For riders, the biggest difference will be the noise — or lack thereof.
“One thing that’s readily apparent on an electric vehicle is it’s much quieter,” Seekings said. “That’ll be the first thing, and probably actually the only thing, riders will notice minute to minute.”
Daniel Moultrie, who takes the bus weekdays from his North Charleston home to his construction job downtown, said the quiet would be a welcome change.
“Sometimes if you’re trying to talk to somebody on the bus or if you’re on the phone, you can’t hear because it’s so loud,” he said. “It would be nice to have a peaceful ride.”
Other advantages of electric vehicles is that they emit virtually no air pollutants or greenhouse gases.
“Three is just a start and we’ll look forward to building on that,” Seekings said. “There are some more grants similar to this that will make more buses available to those who get awarded, and we will pursue them vigorously.”
The transit authority is also updating its Express buses and recently replaced its entire Downtown Area Shuttle and Tel-A-Ride paratransit fleets.
“Just 3½ years ago, it was the oldest fleet in America,” Seekings said. “We’ve been in the process of trying to replace that fleet fairly rapidly. We’d love to do it with all electric buses right away, but it just isn’t practical in terms of production and cost.”
Electric buses cost about $500,000 each, roughly $200,000 more than their gas-fueled cousins.
“Over time we’ll notice a savings, because of lower maintenance,” Seeking said. “We will have a more environmentally friendly fleet, and just be a better provider of services to our customers.”
It’s not clear when the buses will be in service because CARTA has not even ordered them yet.
“I’d say as quickly as possible, given the reality that it takes a while to make a bus,” Seekings said.
The buses will be manufactured in Greenville by Proterra, which is headquartered in Silicon Valley, Calif. Its CEO is Ryan Popple, who in 2014 was hired away from electric-vehicle manufacturer Tesla.
Phone calls and emails to Proterra went unanswered Friday.
“Electric buses, although new to our fleet, are not new technology, and so we’ll be getting a fairly advanced product that we know will be reliable,” Seekings said.
Technology has led to lighter buses with faster acceleration and better ability to climb hills and longer battery life, according to Proterra’s website.
In September 2017, Proterra’s 40-foot Catalyst E2 Max bus traveled 1,101 miles with 660 kWh of energy storage capacity, setting a world record for the longest distance ever traveled by an electric vehicle on a single charge.
CARTA has applied for additional federal funding that could soon bring the bus order to nine, said spokesman Daniel Brock.
Its resolution to replace its fleet followed several other cities across the country, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and New York, who have all pledged to switch to more environmentally friendly electric fleets.
“This is yet another step forward for public transportation in the region,” said COG and CARTA Executive Director Ron Mitchum. “Our staff worked diligently to secure funding for these clean-fuel vehicles, which will be the first of many on tri-county streets and highways.”
A cornerstone of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act signed into law by Congress in December 2015, the Low-No Grant program is centered on modernizing transit systems through the purchase of buses, which are powered by hybrid or battery engines, according to Proterra.
More than $84 million in funding was awarded to 52 projects in 41 states. About $36 million will be spent on Proterra buses nationally.