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GoRaleigh goes electric as the city continues to move away from diesel buses

RDU begins using electric buses between parking lots, airport terminals

The first electric transit buses in the Triangle have begun shuttling passengers between the remote parking lots and the terminals at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
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The first electric transit buses in the Triangle have begun shuttling passengers between the remote parking lots and the terminals at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

GoRaleigh, which began using buses that run on compressed natural gas last fall, now plans to roll out its first electric buses in late 2020 or early 2021.

The transit agency learned last week that it had received a $1.65 million federal grant for electric buses. The grant, combined with $2.6 million from the Wake County sales tax for transit approved by voters three years ago, will allow GoRaleigh to buy five electric buses as well as the equipment needed to keep them charged.

Each of the new buses will cost about $800,000, which is as much as $300,000 more than the typical diesel bus they will replace, according to GoRaleigh spokesman Rob Murray. But electric buses cost significantly less to operate and maintain than ones that run on diesel or compressed natural gas, in large part because of savings on fuel, and GoRaleigh expects to come out ahead financially, Murray said.

The Raleigh Transit Authority decided two years ago to wean GoRaleigh off diesel. It set a goal of replacing 75% of its 100 buses with buses powered by compressed natural gas or CNG, which is cheaper and burns cleaner than diesel. The first 17 CNG buses hit the road last fall, and 23 more are expected to arrive by October, bringing the total to 40, Murray said.

The rest of the fleet will run on some other fuel that’s cleaner than diesel, which could include electric. Murray said the city isn’t in a rush to stock up on electric buses, because the technology is evolving.

“Battery electric technology is improving so quickly that it makes sense to start slow and grow the fleet as the technology continues to improve,” he wrote in an email.

GoRaleigh joins a growing list of public transit agencies in the Triangle that plan to add electric buses to their fleets. Chapel Hill Transit and GoTriangle have each received federal grants to help buy their first electric buses, and Duke University expects to have two electric buses by the summer of 2020.

Raleigh-Durham International Airport beat them all when it began using four electric buses to shuttle travelers between its terminals and remote parking lots in late May. RDU also had help from the federal government, in the form of a $1.6 million grant from the Federal Aviation Administration, and expects to save $350,000 per bus in fuel and maintenance costs over their 12-year lifespan.

A typical GoRaleigh bus also remains on the road for 12 years, or a half million miles.

Like RDU, GoRaleigh plans to buy its electric buses from Proterra Inc., a California company with a plant in Greenville, S.C.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.
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