ITP Wrangles Over Hybrid Buses

March 30, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Interurban Transit Partnership board approved the purchase of 32 new, low-floor Gillig brand buses Wednesday, though a couple of members said they were disappointed that there weren’t going to be any hybrid electric buses among the new buys.

Mayor George Heartwell said he’d prefer that at least some of the new buses be powered by hybrid technology because of the monetary benefits, as well the “green” image it reflects on the city. He said he originally intended to vote against the purchase of the Gillig buses because he prefers a commitment to hybrids. 

The Rapid currently has five hybrid electric buses: two were added to the fleet in the spring of last year and three more went into service last fall. Ten more hybrids are expected to come on board to serve the bus rapid transit route that’s planned for the Division Avenue corridor. 

Board member Robert Morris said he’d rather see The Rapid go one way or the other — either go all the way with hybrids or don’t. 

“A little bit of hybrid bus is probably good public relations, but you’re kidding yourself if only 2 percent of the fleet is hybrid,” Morris said. “I’d rather see us make the decision to purchase only hybrids in the future, and we’ll have to live with maybe not providing quite as much service.”

Grand Valley State University is doing an analysis of how the hybrids operate under different circumstances, in different types of service scenarios and in different seasons, and is collecting data on fuel savings. Brian Pouget, director of operations for The Rapid, said the study has been delayed and results are now expected in late fall, or at least by the end of the year.

“I had certainly hoped that we wouldn’t come up against another purchase without that data in front of us,” Heartwell said. “I just feel like we missed another opportunity by not starting the study earlier.”

Pouget pointed out that there’s a $216,000 price differential on a hybrid bus. He said The Rapid spent $250,000 each for the last hybrids it purchased. The 32 Gillig buses have a collective price tag of $10.4 million.

“These are really very difficult things to balance,” said Peter Varga, CEO of The Rapid. Varga said securing state funds for new buses takes a very long time, and the transit authority just doesn’t have the money to buy an entire fleet of electric hybrid buses. He said his vision is to develop The Rapid into a zero-emission transit system over the next 30 years, and hybrids are part of that transition. 

“I believe Peter really shares this passion and has the more difficult job than mine in actually making it happen, as the manager of this system,” Heartwell remarked. “I’d like to see that goal of zero emissions happen in a thoughtful, scheduled, strategic way.”

Board members agreed to continue the discussion at their next retreat.

The Rapid’s current fleet includes 25 Gillig buses that were built in 1997. Under Federal Transit Administration standards, buses are eligible for replacement after 12 years in service. When Gillig delivers the new buses in the summer of 2009, all 25 will be replaced.

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