A Metro Transit electric bus demonstration in 2015.
A Metro Transit electric bus demonstration in 2015. Credit: Eric Wheeler / Metro Transit

A year after idling its first electric buses because of reliability problems, the transit agency serving Minneapolis and St. Paul has put the vehicles back on the road and released a plan to begin electrifying more of its bus fleet.

Metro Transit’s Zero-Emission Bus Transition Plan was submitted to the Legislature in February. It calls for spending a fifth of its bus acquisition budget over the next five years to purchase more than 100 electric models.

The plan comes as Metro Transit works to catch up with agencies in comparable cities and recover from a bumpy pilot program that resulted in the sidelining of eight 60-foot articulated buses for about a year while it addressed mechanical and charging problems. The buses were placed back in service in December. 

Since then, “they have been performing very well,” said Nick Thompson, Metro Transit’s deputy general manager for capital programs. The buses were built by Minnesota company New Flyer, which made significant software upgrades.

The agency’s net-zero bus plan details the problems experienced during its pilot program. The electric buses generated a high number of service calls compared to its diesel buses, but those dropped by two-thirds following upgrades and incremental maintenance. 

The transit agency reconfigured heating controls and addressed wheel slippage issues. All of the Siemens chargers were replaced in 2021 while still under warranty due to technical problems that included blown fuses and premature transformer failure.

It’s been about two decades since Metro Transit introduced electric-diesel hybrid buses, which now constitute more than 10% of its 900 vehicle bus fleet. The agency started using particulate matter traps in 2007 and introduced diesel exhaust fluid three years later to reduce nitrous oxide emissions. In 2012, Metro Transit added solar to facilities and in 2016 began testing non-revenue electric transit vehicles.

The net-zero emissions report was requested and funded by the Legislature, which allocated $250,000 last year for the study. Other transit agencies highlighted in the report are moving faster on electrification. Toronto plans to add 300 electric vehicles by 2025. Seattle is aiming for 250 by 2028. 

Net-zero buses will be effective in reducing particulates and other pollutants in low-income neighborhoods that suffer the highest levels of greenhouse gases and respiratory-related illnesses. But the overall impact may be minimal. The state’s transit and school bus fleet produce just .7% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, with Metro Transit constituting .4% of that total. In contrast, passenger vehicles, including light-duty trucks, represent nearly 58% of emissions. Metro Transit believes system improvements will help move people out of cars and onto transit. 

Thompson said Metro Transit feels confident about the future of electric buses because the technology continues to improve. Stakeholders who participated in the study universally supported more investment in electric buses. “We did find the interest among riders and stakeholders surprised us, in a good way,” Thompson said.

Metro Transit’s plan focuses on using standard-length, 40-foot electric buses in core neighborhoods. The challenges during the pilot program were in part due to its use of longer, 60-foot articulated buses on a suburban commuter route that only allowed them to partially recharge their batteries after completing routes.

“Our zero-emission bus plan assumes our deployment and expansion of electric buses would be without inline chargers,” Thompson said. “We want to secure buses that can be charged overnight and then operate their routes during the day on that charge.”

Equity was one measure for route selection, as was proximity to five bus garages with chargers. A new garage opening next March near the agency’s headquarters near downtown Minneapolis will be able to accommodate several electric buses serving the core cities.

Riders will not see electric buses on express routes or bus rapid transit corridors with articulated buses, Thompson said. Those routes may have electric buses in the future, but they will not be a priority for now, he said. Two upcoming new lines connecting St. Paul with northern and eastern suburbs will use electric buses.

Still, some advocates want faster adoption of net-zero buses. Sam Rockwell, executive director of the transit advocacy organization Move Minnesota, questioned why the agency did not commit to replacing all buses with electric models or consider trolleybuses operated by overhead electric lines. The agency “shouldn’t be buying diesel buses anymore,” he said.

One big factor is funding. The Legislature has not decided how much money Metro Transit will receive to help pay for the new buses. Gov. Tim Walz has recommended $3.2 million in his proposed state budget, enough to pay for just four electric buses. State Rep. Frank Hornstein, a Minneapolis Democrat, said legislators will propose more money, but the amount has not been determined.

“I think we have a broader challenge of transit funding and making sure we can build for a 21st-century system that gets people where they want to go, when they want to go, and quickly,” Hornstein said.

The plan puts the agency in a position to win federal funding under last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law, which includes $7.5 billion for electric bus expansion to transit agencies with an electrification plan. “We’re ahead of other markets because we’re done and ready,” Thompson said. In addition, he said the agency expects prices will drop, just as diesel hybrid buses did after the agency first began buying them 20 years ago.  

Metro Transit has already ordered eight Proterra 40-foot buses using federal grant money. The agency has also applied but has not received approval for federal infrastructure funding to buy electric buses from the bus manufacturer Gillig. The agency plans a general procurement for electric buses later this year, allowing manufacturers to compete against one another for a contract that will last several years.

Metro Transit must also retrofit bus garages with chargers, an expensive proposition. Xcel Energy, the agency’s partner, needs to ensure the electric grid is ready to serve those charging bays. However, national data on electric buses show they get an equivalent of 16.5 miles to a gallon compared to 3.8 miles for a diesel fleet.

Joshua Houdek, senior program manager for land use and transportation at the Sierra Club, said he had been hopeful that problems in the initial electric bus pilot would not dissuade the agency from further investment. “The Metro Transit struggled with the first buses but got them working and back on the road again,” he said. “The experience taught the agency that, for now, the best buses that work for the system will be shorter buses running on tight urban routes that serve a lot of riders. This is efficient and equitable.”

Alireza Khani, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo-Engineering, recently helped author a study of bus electrification in the Twin Cities. The results showed the five most beneficial routes roughly matched Metro Transit’s approach. The routes had among the highest ridership and traveled through diverse, low-income communities. “I think it makes sense to prioritize those neighborhoods and buses that run in those neighborhoods,” Khani said.

Thompson said much still needs to be learned as electric buses move into the system. For example, the agency wants to continue to understand how bitterly cold weather impacts performance. In borrowing a practice from Duluth, the state’s first transit agency to have electric buses, Metro Transit will use natural gas heaters to avoid draining the batteries to heat buses, he said.

Mechanics must also be trained to work on electric buses, which has been a good problem to have, he said. “We have a workforce that actually just wants to work on the vehicles and we see [electric buses] as a way to attract workforce,” he said.

Thompson said net-zero buses are reshaping how Metro Transit powers the region’s bus transportation system and with that challenge will inevitably come hiccups that will lead to more operational changes. “This still is a technology in its infancy and is evolving very quickly,” he said.

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.