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Connect Transit Approves Contracts For Electric Buses, Transfer Center

Connect Transit will soon add a fleet of electric buses.

The Connect Transit board Tuesday approved a contract to bring on four electric buses per year over the next three to four years.

General Manager Isaac Thorne said Connect Transit will purchase 12 to 17 Catalyst E2 buses from Proterra, an electric bus manufacturer. All buses will be paid for through state and federal grants, with no local funding.

“Thirty-five percent of the total cost of the buses is coming from a federal discretionary grant that we won,” Thorne explained. “The other 65% is coming from the Illinois Department of Transportation DOAP, or Downstate Operating Assistance Program.”

Thorne estimated the cost of one Proterra Catalyst E2 bus at $900,000. He said diesel buses cost around $450,000.

With these electric buses, Thorne said Connect Transit will save between $200,000 and $250,000 per bus for the life of the bus.

Thorne said Connect’s current fleet of 49 buses are aging rapidly, and some will need to be replaced soon regardless. Of the buses being replaced, 10 are 2003 models, two are from 2008, one is from 2010, and one is from 2011.

The recommended lifespan of a bus is 12 years. Thorne said while 12 years is not realistic, Connect Transit's oldest vehicles are rapidly approaching the end of their life spans.

Thorne said the transit company will retain diesel buses on some if its 14 routes. Illinois State University’s Redbird Express route, for example, has high ridership and will need to continue to utilize Connect’s 40-foot diesel buses rather than the electric buses that are 35 feet in length.

“We have 14 routes. We have 2.4 million rides per year. Only six to seven routes of those 14 provide 80% of our ridership. Those are heavily utilized routes,” he said. “So when you purchase 35-foot buses, there’s gonna be certain routes that people are going to be standing on.”

But Thorne said a major complaint from the public has been seeing low ridership on large buses, and so this is part of their plan to help resolve that.

The buses will weigh 2,000 pounds more than Connect Transit’s diesel buses. The transit board noted there has been public concern with how current buses tear up city and town streets due to their weight.

The first order will likely be placed in February or March of next year with the first four buses hitting Bloomington-Normal streets in early 2021, Thorne said.

Downtown Transfer Center

The board also approved Tuesday a contract with Farnsworth Group to take the first step towards constructing a Downtown Bloomington transfer center.

Thorne said a $250,000 Illinois Department of Transportation Technical Studies Grant will be used to fund the study.

“We were awarded that in 2018 by IDOT and we’ve had to work through a long process of getting that approved from them. It’s taken much, much longer than we wanted, but we finally got it done today so we’re happy to move forward.”

He stressed that the grant could not be used for anything other than this study.

Now, he said, the first step is determining a location. Thorne neglected to name any specific locations under consideration, but said there will be at least three or four, possibly more.

The board indicated that a community input session will be part of the process in narrowing down prospective locations as the project moves forward.

Thorne said a downtown transfer center is long overdue and that the current transfer location doesn’t cut it.

“It’s very inconvenient for passengers that constantly have to cross over Front Street,” he said. “And they also have to wait for buses because we don’t truly have a pulsing bus network in Downtown Bloomington. There’s buses coming in and out at different times.”

Thorne said it will take between six and 12 months for the contract with Farnsworth to reach completion.

Editor's note: WGLT Program Director Mike McCurdy is also chair of the Connect Transit board.

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