Boris Tsang/Sun Senior Photographer

TCAT plans to add five diesel buses to their fleet.

April 12, 2024

In Blow to Emission-Free Target, TCAT Considers Replacing Electric Buses with Diesel Ones

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A delay in TCAT’s green energy bus target may leave some feeling blue. Nearly three years after the transit operator unveiled its first electric buses to the public, it has now approved a resolution to replace them with diesel buses, pushing back TCAT’s initial plan to operate an all-electric fleet of buses by 2035. 

In an April 12 special meeting, the TCAT Board of Directors unanimously approved a resolution to purchase the five new diesel buses, according to a press release.  

Once in service, they will replace the seven battery-electric buses that are currently out of service. No board members offered additional comments on the matter during the meeting. 

The board approved funds that will help purchase two new hybrid electric buses. TCAT also intends to purchase six 40-foot electric buses and four electric transit vans, for which funding had already been set aside.  

An April 3 press release announced that the TCAT sought to purchase five diesel-powered buses. This development comes after mechanics noticed a separation between the frame and axle of one of its seven Proterra battery-electric buses on March 13. 

25 electric Proterra buses purchased by Philadelphia transit operator SEPTA were taken out of service in 2020 after it discovered cracks in the chassis of a bus. Proterra initially dismissed them as only affecting the appearance, not the structure of the bus. However, a company executive ultimately conceded that the company could not fix the cracks. 

TCAT Acting General Manager Matthew Rosenbloom-Jones decided to place the other six emission-free buses out of service indefinitely as a precaution. 

“We will not return any of these buses to service unless we are absolutely satisfied all of them are safe to operate,” Rosenbloom-Jones wrote in the statement. 

To make up for the absence of the buses — which constitute approximately 13 percent of TCAT’s fleet, according to the press release — the board of directors will met to consider purchasing five diesel buses from Gillig, a bus manufacturer based in California. 

TCAT’s plan to operate an all-electric fleet of buses by 2035 is now expected to “be moved back by a few years” due to funding stipulations, according to the press release. These requirements prohibit TCAT from requesting government support for electric replacement buses for at least 12 years. 

The meeting about the replacement buses was open to the public held at 9 a.m. on April 12.

The replacement of the electric buses with diesel amounts to a step back — or at the very least a delay — in TCAT’s objective to operate an all-electric fleet of buses. Officials in the release emphasized that this remains the company’s long-term target. 

Thanks to additional government funds made available through the Low-No Grant Program, the transit agency still plans to purchase and receive seven other electric buses — also produced by Gillig — by summer 2026. 

TCAT has been battling service cuts, diminished ridership and staffing shortages since the pandemic, forcing some drivers to work long hours. Nevertheless, TCAT hopes that the Gillig buses will help to solve some of these problems.

“We need to get through our current travails in order to survive and thrive, and then we can move forward with our commitment for an all-electric fleet. But that time is not here yet and I hope the community will understand,” TCAT Board Chairperson Deborah Dawson wrote in the press release. 

The board is soliciting public comment and will hold a hearing on April 17 about extending the suspension of routes 14S and 83, which served various grocery stores and parts of campus and Cayuga Heights, respectively. Neither route has run since October.  

TCAT did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the possibility of future reductions in service. 

The now-idle electric buses were originally purchased from the now-defunct manufacturer Proterra for nearly $1 million each, nearly double the cost of a conventional diesel bus. 

Even when Proterra was financially solvent, TCAT struggled to get spare parts from the company to effect repairs to the electric buses. Even before last month’s discovery, “most of them [were] out of service at any given time,” according to the statement. 

TCAT officials see that a return to diesel can have some positives. Once in service, the Gillig buses will still reduce overall carbon emissions by taking cars off the road. They will also be easier to service because of the company’s fewer supply-chain challenges, according to Rosenbloom-Jones.

“I think having a diversified fleet really makes sense,” TCAT Board Member Shawna Black wrote in the press release. “This is not to say that five or three years from now it won’t be a different story, but right now we need to invest in something that is tried and true and that is going back to diesel buses.”

Update, 4/13, 9:31 p.m.: This article has been updated to include the outcome of the TCAT Board of Directors’ vote.