The Department of Transportation is keeping a close eye as hybrid buses get a test run in a couple of rural transit routes.
Local public transportation agencies in Poplar Bluff and Warrensburg have each bought a hybrid bus that will run routes for the Southeast Missouri Transportation Service and OATS programs, respectively. Steve Billings, the administrator of MODOT’s Transit Unit, explains this is part of a national pilot program initiated by CALSTART’s Hybrid Truck Users Forum in 2006.
“We’re gonna be collecting information both on the day-to-day operations, the maintenance and the cost to operate and maintain these vehicles. I think that information will help decision makers decide whether they want to expand the use of hybrids or want to find specific niches, stop and go driving, that sort of thing, where they’re better than other applications,” Billings said.
While some estimate these buses have the potential to reduce fuel use by as much as 40%, Billings is a little more conservative.
“I think conservatively they’re looking for about a 25% increase in fuel economy. But again, driving style will make a difference, and the particular application that they’re in,” Billings said.
Billings says these two towns were chosen to try out the hybrid buses because they don’t have as many long, highway routes. “Stop and go” routes are actually where hybrid vehicles have the biggest effect on fuel efficiency.
He says it may be a while before hybrids start popping up in transit systems in other rural areas in the state.
“My guess is it will probably be at least a year. I think most of the rural transit services are fairly conservative and they don’t want to put a big gamble, they want to make sure these vehicles are reliable. They’re running basically scheduled service and people are relying on these vehicles to get to the doctor’s office, to get to shopping, for some people even to get to work. These vehicles need to be reliable,” Billings said.
He says the environmental friendliness of the vehicles is nice, but the main thing local public transportation agencies will be looking at is the bottom line.
“I think it’s more in, ‘what’s the cost to own and maintain these vehicles once they’re acquired?’ Clearly, if the cost is less, that means these rural transit services can provide more service to rural Missourians,” Billings said.
Billings says if there is a transformation toward hybrid vehicles, it will likely be a gradual one, through regular fleet replacement as old vehicles reach the end of their useful life. He says there are some hybrid buses already in use in cities like Kansas City and St. Louis, but these are the first ones in rural transportation systems in the state.
The costs of the hybrid buses were offset 80% by federal transit funds, although Billings points out that is the same percentage a public system can receive for any type of transit vehicle.