Goodbye Diesel: Wood River Valley public transit agency goes electric

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Clean energy commitments by local governments are popping up across Idaho as cities, agencies and communities find local solutions to the global challenge of climate change. 

In the Wood River Valley, public transit agency Mountain Rides is pioneering the transition to battery-operated electric buses in the state. A federal grant almost five years ago kicked off the process for the agency, which has since secured enough funding to purchase a dozen buses and accompanying charging infrastructure. 

“When we first decided we were going to start looking at electric buses, it came out of the blocks as, ‘this is the right thing to do for the environment,’” Mountain Rides Executive Director Wally Morgus recalls.

Diesel engines produce exhaust that is extremely toxic to bus passengers and contributes to climate change, while also creating noise pollution in our communities. Meanwhile, electric vehicles are quiet and can be charged on Idaho’s grid, which is one of the cleanest in the country. 

But while battery electric buses are cheaper to operate and maintain than diesel, these clean buses have a much higher upfront cost. Plus, transit agencies need to buy and install charging infrastructure. It can cost an agency nearly a million dollars to buy their first bus and install the accompanying charging stations. Thankfully, the federal government offers grants for transit agencies wanting to make the right environmental choice. 

Over the past five years, Mountain Rides has secured around $9 million in “Low-No” funding, a federal grant that helps subsidize transit agencies for making the transition to low- or no-emission vehicles. “We have been diligently applying for grant funding year after year after year,” Morgus says. Through annual Low-No grant cycles from the Federal Transit Administration, Mountain Rides has received 80-85% of the cost of each new battery electric bus.

After purchase, battery electric buses also have a lower cost of ownership. In Idaho, electricity is much cheaper than diesel, and the maintenance costs tend to be a fraction of what it costs to maintain diesel-burning buses. 

In Mountain Rides’ decision-making process around transitioning their fleet to battery electric buses, the environmental benefits were clear. “When we could prove that economically this made sense,” Morgus explains, “that closed the deal with everybody.” Now, Mountain Rides’ board of directors unanimously supports the transition to cleaner buses, and the community is on board too. 

Most of Mountain Rides’ drivers have been able to test out demo buses over the past few years, and are excited about the smoother and quieter ride. However, it took some convincing to get the diesel-trained mechanics on board. 

“Diesel mechanics throughout the industry were saying, ‘I’m not so sure I like this idea of electric buses. That doesn’t sound like great job security for me,’” Morgus says. But Mountain Rides will be keeping their diesel mechanics on board and is providing training to get these employees up to speed on new green technology, an approach embraced by the Biden administration to tackle the twin crises of climate change and rural unemployment. 

“The mechanics have come around 180 degrees and absolutely accept this,” Morgus says. “They view this as occupational growth and a chance to learn a new set of skills.”

Other cities and transit agencies are catching on. Boise, for example, brought on its first tranche of battery-electric buses this year. “They believe in the benefits to the environment, but, just like us, they are happy that the total cost of ownership works in their favor so these make economic sense as well,” Morgus says. 

Environmentally, Morgus knows that making the transition to clean energy buses will be great for the Wood River Valley. “I think we’ll influence others by our success in what we’re doing here,” he says. “I would love to see all of Idaho transit convert to alternative energy vehicles.”

The environmental harms of diesel buses are universal, but the health impacts are particularly concerning for children. With so many rural school districts in the state, Idaho’s 3,400 school buses drive 25 million miles annually. The hours many Idaho kids spend riding diesel buses each week has extremely adverse health effects. 

While transitioning school buses to battery electric might be a high environmental and public health priority, Morgus notes that “we have very tight budgets throughout the state for education.” There is federal grant funding available to subsidize the upfront cost of these buses, but, “that price tag on the battery electric–– sticker shock.” 

Blaine County School District, a relatively rural school district in Mountain Rides’ area, has begun conversations about what it would look like for them to embrace a clean energy transition. Morgus doesn’t work with the school district, but from his understanding, “it sounds like they are interested and starting to take some proactive steps.”

Mountain Rides’ fleet is 20 buses strong, and the agency bought its last diesel bus about two years ago. As of now, they have enough grant money in place to purchase about a dozen battery electric buses and the charging stations to accompany them. “Over the next three years, we will probably have those dozen battery electric buses in our fleet with all the charging infrastructure to support them as well.”

In the meantime, Mountain Rides will keep applying for federal Low-No grants and funding through the State of Idaho’s Department of Environmental Quality. “We want to convert 100% of our fleet to battery electric,” Morgus says. “I think there’s no going back.”

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