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New Electric Buses Begin Test Runs in Downtown Louisville, Turn Heads

When the soon-to-be deployed electric buses took an inaugural cruise through downtown Louisville this weekend, people noticed.“They are a head turner,” said Clifford Kuhl, a schedule analyst for TARC who maneuvered a brand new, whisper-quiet bus along a current trolley route to a charging station on Third Street.The new buses are powered entirely by electricity. He praised their “drivability.”“The thing about electric buses is that it’s very smooth acceleration, very smooth braking,” he said.Kuhl said he also thinks they look good.

The zero-emission electric buses, called ZeroBus, will replace the gas-powered trolleys that have ran through downtown and Old Louisville areas since the mid-1990s, said Jon Reiter, spokesman for TARC.  He said TARC officials will start phasing the new buses into daily operation “sometime early next year.”Reiter said TARC purchased the 10 buses for about $11 million, with the help of state and federal grants.Once the old trolleys are retired from daily street service. They will continue for some time to provide rides during the Frankfort Avenue Trolley Hop on the last Friday of each month, Reiter said.The trolleys are the "highest polluting vehicles now in TARC's fleet," according to the TARC website.He said TARC drivers began training with the ZeroBus today. He said he expects that TARC drivers will quickly learn how to operate the ZeroBus. But the new buses comes new features and responsibilities—like the need to regularly charge a battery.Mike Segvich, a mechanic with Proterra (the company that makes the ZeroBus), said a five-minute stop at a charging station will give the bus enough power to run for nearly 40 miles. Charging stations will be located near Third and York streets in Old Louisville and Eighth and Market streets in downtown Louisville. The station on Market Street is still under construction, Segvich said.The buses will pull underneath the station and an automatic arm will connect to one of the bus’ batteries at the top of the bus, and begin the charging process.

So, since the buses run totally from battery-powered electricity, what happens if there is a power failure and no electricity is available?  Segvich said the buses would be “slow charged” on a generator.  He said that would take about 45 minutes.Reno, San Antonio, Tallahassee  and other cities  have ZeroBus service, Segvich said.To pay for the buses, TARC received about $4.4 million from the Federal Transit Administration’s Clean Fuels Program in spring 2012. In fall 2013, TARC received the same amount from the state’s congestion mitigation program, he said. Louisville Metro government contributed about $500,000 to the $2 million “local match” that covers the rest of the cost, Reiter said.The new buses will save about $300,000 a year in gas and maintenance costs, he said.The new buses are slightly larger than the older trolleys (they can hold about a dozen more passengers).But they’re the same in one aspect—they’re free.“In the future they might be used on regular revenue routes,” he added.  “They’re going to be doing a lot of evaluation on them for the next few months to see how they do, but it’s a great driving bus.”Here is where the ZeroBus will be operating.ROUTE 1 – FOURTH STREET TROLLEY:Breckinridge Street south of Broadway to the Galt HouseROUTE 77 – MAIN–MARKET TROLLEY: Along Main and Market streets between 10th and Campbell streets. Serves the Louisville International Convention Center, Fourth Street Live, NuLu and attractions of the West Main Street Cultural District, including Louisville Slugger Museum, Kentucky Science Center, Frazier History Museum, Muhammad Ali Center and more.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.