Seven electric battery-powered buses that the Des Moines Area Transit Authority has purchased are now being built. The first of the buses is expected to be delivered to Des Moines late this spring, according to DART. 

The electric buses, which are being manufactured by California-based bus maker Proterra Inc., represent a project that has been more than three years in the making. In September 2017, DART announced it had received a $1.45 million No or Low Emission (NoLo) grant to help pay for the project, which aims to save energy and reduce greenhouse-gas causing carbon emissions. 

Earlier this week, the Des Moines City Council received an update on the project during a quarterly work session. After the buses are received from the factory on a rolling schedule this spring, DART plans to introduce the buses sometime this summer. The transit agency would like to feature one of them in this year’s Iowa State Fair Parade before launching daily service with the seven buses this fall, DART spokeswoman Erin Hockman said.

“We are looking at this as a pilot project,” she said. “Agencies [across the country] are using electric buses, but none have had them in service for a long time. We want to evaluate for ourselves what the impact will be on the total cost of ownership.” 

DART has raised $7.07 million for the project, which includes the federal NoLo grant as well as nearly $3.5 million in Federal Transportation Administration formula transit grants and a $378,000 grant in Diesel Emission Reductions Act grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. DART, the City of Des Moines and MidAmerican Energy Co. are providing the remaining $1.75 million, or 25% of the project cost. 

The funding will also pay for the needed charging docks to be installed at DART’s bus garage south of downtown.

The new e-buses, which are being made at Proterra’s plant in Industry, Calif., each cost $863,000 — 80% more than the $478,000 that DART would spend on a diesel bus. The price difference is being made up by the federal NoLo and DERA grants and the local matching funds, Hockman said. The FTA formula funds pay what DART would normally spend to purchase a new diesel bus, so each bus will be fully paid for, she noted. 

According to a November article by InsideClimate News, there are about 650 e-buses now operating on U.S. roads, a figure that has doubled from the 300 that were in use in 2018. If all of the pledges made by states, cities and urban transit agencies are fulfilled, at least one-third of the nation’s nearly 70,000 public transit buses will be all-electric by 2045, according to a report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. 

DART plans to collect its own figures on real cost savings generated by the e-buses. Reports from other cities are promising. Chicago, which has just two e-buses in service, estimates that those two vehicles save the city more than $24,000 annually in fuel costs and $30,000 annually in maintenance expenses, according to the InsideClimate News article. 

In Iowa, the Quad-Cities’ MetroLINK system put its first three all-electric buses into service nearly two years ago, and CyRide in Ames announced in August 2019 that it had received a $1.7 million NoLo grant to purchase two electric buses for use on the Iowa State University campus. Rich Leners, associate transit director with CyRide, said he anticipates his organization is still 12 to 18 months away from those buses being procured and delivered, due to the time required to approve specifications and go through the purchasing process. 

Whether DART moves in the direction of expanding its electric fleet could be part of the DART Commission’s upcoming debate over whether to relocate its operations center to a proposed $68 million facility on Des Moines’ east side, or upgrade its outdated bus maintenance facility. The existing facility would be able to accommodate no more than 18 electric buses, according to DART.