Electric Bus Boondoggle?

How Cedar Rapids, Iowa's grand experiment in electric-powered transit went bust.

Published: 29-Jul-2007

CEDAR RAPIDS — In a fenced-in lot along a railroad track off B Avenue NW, nine city buses sit in a line, little worn and little wanted.

The mothballed, electricpowered buses — purchased between late 1995 and late 1998 in a project that garnered $7.5 million in federal grants and came with a$10 million total price tag — are testaments to a promising transit experiment in renewable energy that never worked out.

Brad DeBrower, the city’s transit manager, noted recently that a few of the city’s workhorse diesel buses have logged a million miles before heading out to pasture.

The Federal Transit Administration standard, he added, can require a new, federally subsidized city bus weather 12 years of life and travel 500,000 miles.

In contrast, the city’s nine electric buses, four all-electrics and five hybrids, have mileage totals that DeBrower admits are "scary low."

The range: 6,601, 8,794 and 9,013 miles on the low end to 24,730 miles on the high end. Fred Rossow, senior electrical engineer at Rockwell Collins who managed the city’s electric bus program from 1998 to early 2005, recalled Wednesday how the city’s bus mechanics and drivers came to hate the electric buses because they broke down along bus routes so often.

"They didn’t like hauling them in off the street," Rossow said. "We towed a lot of buses back to the garage.

". . . It was kind of a standing joke that we could put a tow truck in front of them and run them on routes."

In a memo to the Federal Transit Administration in August 2006, Bill Hoekstra, who was then the city’s transit chief, noted that the city had mothballed one of the nine buses in 2000, one in 2002, one in 2003, three in 2004 and three in 2005.

The memo came after the failure of the city’s electric bus fleet raised a red flag with the Federal Transit Administration when federal officials learned the city had more buses than it should.

DeBrower explained that cities are to limit the number of spare buses to 20 percent of the number of buses it uses at peak times. In Cedar Rapids, peak use is 28 or 29 buses, and the nine mothballed electric buses put the city "way out of whack" with the federal rule, DeBrower said.

The worst fear has been that the city might have to pay back $2 million or so to the federal government — what amounts to 80 percent of the buses’ total cost of $2.65 million.

DeBrower, however, said the city continues to try to unload the buses in an arrangement that the Federal Transit Administration finds acceptable. One hope, he said, is that Bowling Green State University’s Electric Vehicle Institute might come to the rescue. On Wednesday, Paul Griffo, a Federal Transit Administration spokesman in Washington, D.C., took a conciliatory tone, noting that the Cedar Rapids project’s use of "innovative" technology could provide an exception to some agency rules.

Griffo called the project a $10 million one and noted that the city received two federal grants for it: one for $ 3 million, another for $4.477 million.

Origin of fleet
Back in 1993, it was all possibilities when the idea for an experimental fleet of electric buses began to take shape for Cedar Rapids.

The idea was sold to federal transit officials as an "alternative fuels" initiative that would test whether electric batteries could fuel a fleet of buses in a place with cold winters.

Termed the Cedar Rapids Electric Transportation Consortium, the city of Cedar Rapids, IES Industries Inc., Westinghouse Electric Corp. and Blue Bird Corp. all signed on.

The initial proposal called for a $10.685 million project, with the federal government paying $8.361 million, the city of Cedar Rapids $1.054 million, and the other players something less than that.

Problems with buses
The project, which launched in late 1996, was struggling when the city brought Fred Rossow on to manage it in 1998.

Rossow, who called his seven years with the project "frustrating," said the chief problem with the program was the intricate electronic drive system in the buses that never worked correctly. Once Westinghouse sold the business and then it was sold again, it was difficult to get system support, Rossow said. Another problem was the bus batteries. Eventually, the city found quality batteries made in Germany, only to see the United States and Germany enter a tariff war that, Rossow said, involved bananas and electric batteries. This put the cost of the German batteries out of reach for three to four years, he said. Among other problems was the city’s battery pack, which he said weighed 2 tons and couldn’t be readily changed out. Other cities with electric buses or hybrids, he noted, use battery packs they can be swapped out to keep the buses on the street.

Rossow said hybrid electric buses have a future, noting that New York City, Miami and Seattle use them today. Hybrids cost less to operate and pollute less, though they cost about 20 percent more than a standard bus, he said.

Electric-powered buses no longer used by the city sit in a transportation yard in northwest Cedar Rapids. The city has mothballed its fleet of nine electric-powered buses (five hybrids and four all-electrics) that were purchased in the 1990s in a project funded largely by federal grants. The buses broke down often and failed to live up to the promise the city envisioned.

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