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Connect Transit unveils new charging infrastructure

Community leaders, including Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe, left, and Normal Mayor Chris Koos, right, attended an event Tuesday to celebrate the arrival of charging infrastructure at Connect Transit headquarters in Bloomington.

The mayors of Bloomington and Normal and U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis were among dozens of area community leaders who gathered at Connect Transit's headquarters Tuesday morning for a celebration of the agency's journey toward electrification.

Charging infrastructure for a continued roll out of battery-powered, electric buses arrived at Connect Transit's Wylie Drive location in late August, but general manager David Braun said agency leaders decided to wait before holding a celebratory event.

Braun, who became the transportation department's head in 2021, said the charging station has the power — 1.5 megawatts — to charge 40 buses.

"Now we can actually expand our service," he said. "We'll be getting eight more buses by the end of November — out on the road, fully functioning and running as they should throughout the area."

Braun said the agency hopes to have a total of 12 electric buses on the road by the end of the year and 50% of the fleet electrified by 2024. There are four electric buses in service already; Connect Transit marketing manager Aubrey Stanton said until the new charging infrastructure arrived, the agency was making do with two, single-bus chargers.

Normal Mayor Chris Koos told attendees the continued roll out of electric buses signals a commitment to electric vehicle usage that dates back "10-12 years ago" when the Twin Cities branded themselves as an "EV Town."

"I think we could probably say, at one time, there were more EVs on the streets of Bloomington-Normal than there were in any other community in the U.S.," he said. "Connect Transit's electrification project here kind of dovetails with the philosophies we've had as a community — like our EV Town initiative."

Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe said the transit system plans to debut a route from Uptown Station to Rivian Motorway before turning around and stopping at the Walmart on the west side of Bloomington. The route will be called the "Cobalt" route — the significance of which Mwilambwe said was especially important to him.

"It's ironic that I'm standing here talking about this... Cobalt is one of the most expensive minerals to mine and it is mined almost exclusively in the Democratic Republic of Congo where I was born," he said. "The exploitation of cobalt has been tied to many human rights violations."

Mwilambwe said the route had received its name given its proximity to Rivian that does not use cobalt in its vehicle batteries.

Funding for Connect Transit's electrification efforts comes from a mix of $13 million in federal grant dollars from the U.S. Department of Transportation, as well as nearly $10 million in state fundingfrom Gov. JB Pritzker's Rebuild Illinois initiative.

Davis, a Republican from Taylorville, was at the public transit event in part due to his own efforts to secure funding for the agency, although he did recently vote against a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill late last year, calling it "reckless, multi-trillion-dollar tax-and-spending legislation.”

"I hope my legacy is that, he promised to come serve his communities by fighting to make them better and supporting local initiatives," said Davis, who lost his bid for reelection earlier this year. "I certainly hope I leave with a legacy of success — and Connect Transit is one of my successes."

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.