Two of the new buses. Image by the author.

The DC Circulator bus system is getting a refresh of its fleet with 26 new clean diesel buses that will be entering service this week. 14 fully battery electric buses are coming later this year. Officials hope the new buses, coupled with a future new maintenance facility, will help the system overcome maintenance problems that have tarnished the once-shiny brand of a bus that would come every 10 minutes, along easy-to-remember routes in central DC, offering rides for $1.

Mayor Muriel Bowser announced the clean diesel buses, which are New Flyer Xcelsior XD40 buses, at a press event Tuesday morning. New Flyer also made the 18 buses DC purchased in 2014-15. Coming later this year are the battery electric buses, made by Proterra.

Unlike the last set of New Flyers, the new buses are not hybrids. Terry Owens, spokesperson for the District Department of Transportation, said that the cost and downtimes for maintaining the two separate propulsion systems on the buses exceeded any benefit from having hybrid technology. But DDOT hopes that the Proterra battery electric buses are the future for clean energy for the Circulator and other regional buses.

Other features of the new New Flyer buses include a pedestrian alert system to help warn drivers and avoid crashes; air conditioning; USB charging ports in the seats; and “infotainment screens” to provide real-time information (and possibly in the future, ads).

The interior of the new buses. Image by the author.

The Circulator struggles with maintenance and reliability problems

Of the 40 buses now arrived or on order, 35 will replace aging VanHool buses from the Circulator's early days (29 from 2003-04 and 6 from 2009), while 5 will add more buses to the fleet. The older buses are also nearing the end of their useful life and had no mid-life overhaul to add more years of operation.

The Circulator is supposed to arrive every 10 minutes on all lines, but actually only 67% of the time do they arrive between 5 and 15 minutes. According to a recent scathing audit, the Circulator system has about one-third of its buses out of service at any given time, about double the industry average. That means often there are just not enough buses out on the road to meet service levels.

Partly because of this, ridership has dropped 14% for January-April 2017 compared to the same period in 2016. (It's likely Metro woes, SafeTrack, the rise of ride hailing, and other larger trends played a part as well.)

The Circulator is run by a contractor, First Transit. DC controls and pays for the system, but WMATA actually administers the contract with First Transit. Under the contract, WMATA has fined First Transit millions of dollars for not meeting its performance goals. DDOT recently put out a draft RFP which, when likely issued in September, would let DDOT take direct control of the contract and potentially also competitively bid it to other companies besides First Transit. That eliminates the WMATA middleman.

An older VanHool Circulator. Image by m01229 licensed under Creative Commons.

Circulator needs a maintenance facility

The current contract requires the operator (that's First Transit) to have its own maintenance facility. But the one First Transit uses, a former armored car shop on 17th Street NE near New York and Montana avenues, isn't big enough. It also, not surprisingly, is an impediment to other companies winning the bid who don't happen to have an industrially-zoned plot of land with diesel fuel facilities on site just lying around collecting dust.

DDOT officials feel they need a District-controlled maintenance facility so that a new operator (or First Transit, if it bids for an wins the current procurement) can just staff it and use it. They feel that's the only way to ensure that $35 million of new buses don't just rust away quickly. The government recently solicited bids for sites and is now negotiating with finalists.

In addition to the future new site, DDOT can use the facility on Hains Point which used to store the Tourmobiles; that holds 18 buses, which DDOT is using for the 2014-2015 New Flyers and operating the National Mall route from there. That building isn't large enough for more than light maintenance, Owens explained. DDOT also has a facility which was being used for streetcar testing on South Capitol street, but doesn't have diesel fuel; it could be a good place to store the electric buses.

A Proterra electric bus being shown off at the USDOT headquarters on M St SE. Image by Proterra.

Let's talk about electric buses

Battery electric technology has advanced enough, DDOT officials feel, to be able to run one entire Circulator line on the vehicles, which have no combustion engines. No engines means quieter operation and no emissions along the route. (See what Dan Malouff wrote about the research and development work back in 2011).

Proterra expects the buses to be able to run all day, including with heat or air conditioning, on one battery charge. Owens said that during a recent clean technology event at the Reagan Building, Proterra ran the same model of bus as a shuttle for 12 hours from Union Station, in June heat.

The 14 battery electric buses will start being built this week, and should come to DDOT in the fall for testing. These will be a pilot project for DDOT to see if they actually can work for the Circulator or not.

As with any advancing technology, it's possible there will be hiccups. It's good to see DDOT willing to be a relatively early adopter of a cleaner technology; after all, transportation makes up a third of our emissions, and electric vehicles (powered by cleanly generated electricity) are a near-necessity to help combat climate change.

In fact, environmental advocates are pushing for even more electric buses, and if these work well, DDOT is open to the idea of making its next purchase all electric. Advocates would like to use settlement money from Volkswagen. The automaker put devices in its diesel vehicles to burn fuel cleanly only when undergoing an emissions test, and dirtily (but more powerfully) otherwise. VW paid a $14.7 billion settlement for its deception; of that, $2.7 billion will fund project to reduce the kinds of emissions VW cars were illegally spewing without their owners' knowledge.

For its part, DC gets $7.5 million to electrify its transportation system, and the Sierra Club has advocated for buying more battery electric buses with that money.

The electric buses aren't on the road yet, but should be later this year. Meanwhile, you will soon be able to hop on one of the new buses on a Circulator line near you. Look for buses with numbers in the 2100s!

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.