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More Electric Buses Are Coming to Downtown Louisville

Louisville public transportation officials expect the number of zero-emission buses operating downtown to increase 50 percent in the next 15 months.

A $3.3 million grant from the Federal Transportation Administration announced Thursday will allow the Transit Authority of River City, or TARC, to purchase five more of the electric buses that recently replaced the trolleys that operated in downtown Louisville.

The additional buses will bring the city's total to 15, making it the second largest electric bus fleet in the country, said Jon Reiter, spokesman for TARC.

TARC director Barry Barker said the added buses will certainly allow TARC to expand it's service in the downtown area; the routes have not yet been decided.

"We're going to be looking at what's the best use of them. Do we increase the frequency on the routes we've already got or do we extend the Main and Market or extend the Fourth Street route?" he said.

He said the new equipment is  a benefit to TARC and to Louisville's air quality. Since the new electric buses began operating in downtown on Jan. 12, nearly 2,000 pounds of carbon emissions have been removed from the air, Barker said.

But more buses also mean greater operating costs, he added.

"On the one hand it's great to have all this great equipment, on the other hand we are trying to get the resources to put the driver in the seats," he said.

Barker said alocal option sales tax—which Mayor Greg Fischer has enthusiastically supported—could provide the funds necessary to hire and train more drivers for the growing fleet. The Kentucky General Assembly is considering legislation allowing for such a tax in the state.

Carolyn Flowers, senior adviser with the FTA, said the granting process was "very competitive." Funds were allocated to just 10 municipalities across the nation. More than 50 applied for the money, she said.

Louisville was chosen due to it's past commitments to sustainability regarding public transportation, she said.

"They met and exceeded the criteria we were looking for in terms of reduction in admissions, making sure that the bus was manufactured in America and that it was going to have a great affect on the environment," she said.

The electric buses in Louisville are manufactured by Proterra, a South Carolina-based company. Barker said a single bus costs about $980,000.

He said the entire cost of the five new buses is not covered by the federal grant, but TARC will use $1.6 million from its annual federal funding and $917,750 in local funding to complete the entire expansion project expected to cost $5.9 million.

TARC will add charging station for the electric buses and get a jump start on constructing a solar-panel roof atop the organization's 200,000-square foot bus storage facility near Union Station, Barker said..

The larger, more common buses that predominantly run outside of the downtown area are not currently slated for replacement by electric buses, Barker said.

Why? Because the electric buses need a charge every 30 miles, making them unsuitable for many trips beyond downtown.

Correction: This story was updated to reflect the percentage of new zero-emission buses coming to Louisville.

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.