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Connect Transit will add electric buses, micro-transit vans with 'system changing' $13 million federal grant

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The five new electric buses will replace aging diesel buses, some of which are nearly 20 years old. When the new buses arrive in a couple years, nearly half of Connect Transit’s fleet would be electric, said general manager David Braun.

Connect Transit will get a $13 million federal grant that will pay for five new electric buses, electric vans for a new on-demand micro-transit service, and a new training and storage facility.

“I can’t emphasize enough what this funding means for a system our size. This is system changing for Connect Transit and will help us to provide a vital connection to the Bloomington-Normal community for all current and potential riders,” said Ryan Whitehouse, Connect Transit board chair.

The five new electric buses will replace aging diesel buses, some of which are nearly 20 years old. When the new buses arrive in a couple years, nearly half of Connect Transit’s fleet would be electric, said general manager David Braun. The system expects to have 12 electric buses by the end of 2022, and another five by the end of 2023, plus the five being purchased as part of the $13 million grant.

“For our regular fixed-route system, it makes our buses quieter. It makes them cleaner. It makes them much more attractive for people, being a more modern vehicle,” Braun said.

The $13 million grant comes from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration under its Buses and Bus Facilities Program.

The money will also fund five to seven electric vans for Connect Transit’s new micro-transit service. That’s expected to launch in spring 2023, although it may need to operate with temporary vehicles until the battery-powered vans arrive, likely in 2024, Braun said.

The details of Connect Transit’s micro-transit service are still being worked out, Braun said. But micro-transit generally allows people to call for a ride on a small van using an app, with an ideal wait of 10 to 15 minutes. If the destination, like the grocery store, is within that “zone” – typically a 5-mile square – the rider can go straight there. If it’s further away, they’ll be taken to a bus stop for a connection.

“It’s similar to Uber, but it’s very much a shared-ride system, where people shouldn’t expect to get an individual ride. It’s really based on an algorithm that maps where people are riding from and tries to connect as many people as possible during that trip,” Braun said.

The micro-transit vans will circulate through certain neighborhoods, he said, which will be chosen based on current access to transit, income levels, and other factors. It’s meant for people who don’t have disabilities or mobility needs, he said, differentiating it from the Connect Mobility service.

“It will provide access to a broader element of the community that currently doesn’t have access to transit,” Braun said.

The rest of the $13 million grant will fund a new small storage facility – for the micro-transit and Connect Mobility vehicles – that will include a training center, Braun said. It will be used to train employees on the new electric vehicles, hold employee meetings, and serve as a regional training site for other transit systems. It will likely be built on Wylie Drive in west Bloomington near Connect Transit’s existing garage, which is “maxed out” for inside storage, Braun said.

Braun praised Bloomington-Normal’s congressional delegation for their work to secure the federal grant, including U.S. Reps. Rodney Davis and Darin LaHood and Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth.

“Not only will electric vehicles enable a cleaner future, they’ll create widespread jobs across the state,” Durbin said in a statement. “These federal funds will give Illinois’ transit systems the resources they need to bring themselves up to speed with technology while providing reliable, affordable services for Illinoisans.”

“Transitioning to electric vehicles—and other green energy sources—puts us on the path to a healthier environment while opening up new avenues for economic growth and job creation in our state,” Duckworth added. “With this federal support, we’re able to help modernize Illinois’s public transit by replacing and rehabilitating bus fleets across the state with low-pollution, energy efficient models.”

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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