Ben Franklin bus

The future of public transportation could be unfolding on a single bus route in Washington State. Ben Franklin Transit has received a grant from California non-profit CALSTART to operate an all-electric bus. This grant was championed by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) as a first step toward greener transportation in the state’s south-central cities. Officials with Ben Franklin Transit will work with California-based Complete Coach Works (CCW) to convert a diesel-powered bus into an emissions-free vehicle.  A single all-electric bus might seem like a minor shift but Ben Franklin Transit could move toward additional conversions with a successful trial.

CCW and Ben Franklin Transit were concerned with cost, range and environmental impact when applying for the CALSTART grant. The Zero Emission Propulsion System (ZEPS) developed by CCW can be easily swapped into a low-floor bus without significant time or expense. Ben Franklin Transit and other transit operators could spare their budgets by converting existing vehicles rather than purchasing new models. The transit authority also wanted an all-electric bus rather than a bus powered by hydrogen, ethanol or another alternative fuel to avoid costly infrastructure investments needed for refueling stations. A final requirement for the converted bus is an overall range of 100 miles, which ZEPS easily accomplishes using Ben Franklin Transit’s current vehicles.

ZEPS is built around a 90 kW electric motor that provides ample power for the average transit bus. CCW paired the motor with a 213 kWh lithium-phosphate battery intended for heavy-duty use. Ben Franklin Transit can recharge the battery between shifts with the average recharge taking four to six hours. The CCW team will swap out factory components like wiring, seats and air conditioning before installing ZEPS. Ben Franklin Transit will not only overhaul the vehicle’s drive system but insert new seats and an energy-efficient climate control system. The overhaul team will keep as many original components in the bus as possible without sacrificing drive system performance.

Ben Franklin Transit also conducted studies on each route to determine the best route for an electric-powered bus. These studies determined that Route 23/26 in Richland fit all of the criteria for an effective demonstration of ZEPS. An ideal route includes relatively low speeds, frequent stops and sufficient ridership to warrant the vehicle’s use. This route operates every 30 minutes during the week and covers the north side of Richland. Route 23/26 covers an eight-mile loop cutting through local streets with low speed limits and frequent bus stops.  Transit authorities will keep track of maintenance issues, vehicle range and other metrics to determine whether the demonstration is successful.

The potential impacts of EV conversion techniques on public transportation could be enormous with broader use. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) found that 1,206 public busing programs operated in the United States in 2012. These transit system range from small-scale systems that serve entire counties to complex transit programs from Los Angeles to New York City. We have heard a lot about the high costs of electric vehicles as well as budget constraints on transit systems. The blueprint created by Ben Franklin Transit, CCW and CALSTART could be replicated by any transit authority trying to balance budgetary constraints with environmental responsibility.