Until the wheels started turning, it wasn’t obvious the bus was on. It seemed too quiet, too still.
But of course, unlike other START buses, this electric vehicle had no engine.
“It’s running right now, by the way,” START Director Darren Brugmann said. “He’s just going to push the gas.”
The bus sat inside the START facility, and Brugmann sat inside the bus along with a handful of local officials who showed up Feb. 20 to learn about the latest acquisition for local public transportation: eight zero-emission, electric vehicles from Proterra.
The company’s director of business development, Alan Westenkow, was there, too. He traveled to Jackson — just north of where, he said, his great-great-grandfather was perhaps the first to winter in Star Valley — to demonstrate a prototype of the buses START will purchase around this time next year.
“It’s been designed to meet the routes of Jackson,” Westenkow said.
Its heavy batteries are set low on the bus, lowering its center of gravity, which aids in stability on snowy roads. An internal heating system built for cold climates takes strain off the batteries, preserving their range of about 200 miles, sufficient for a day of shuttling back and forth to Teton Village.
The bus seemed right for Jackson, but Proterra brought one here to give its mechanics, drivers and riders a chance to check it out — and test its mettle.
Donnie McBath, a transit dispatcher with START, said the bus held its own in a variety of conditions, from minus 22 to 15 degrees, from hard-packed snow to slick ice.
He said three of START’s most experienced drivers took it for a spin, and each was satisfied overall with its performance, aside from a few cosmetic issues. And the battery, which takes only four hours to charge, lasted longer than necessary for a full day of driving.
“It did better than we thought it was going to do,” McBath said. “We were all kind of skeptical … but it seemed to hold up to the test.”
START will replace eight vehicles in its diesel fleet with these buses through a $2.3 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Low- or No-Emissions Grant program.
The move is in line with START’s commitment to transition to 40 percent electric by 2022, which is part of Jackson and Teton County’s efforts to preserve the region’s ecosystem and create a more sustainable future.
“We are very proud and very excited to be able to start meeting some of those goals,” Brugmann said.
County Commissioner Mark Newcomb attended the demonstration and said he was impressed by the bus, despite the theatrics of the demo.
“It was certainly the sales pitch,” he said. “But on the other hand, a lot of it’s pretty reliable.”
The bus is quiet, efficient, low-emission and environmentally friendly, despite the internal diesel heating system (diesel is more efficient in a heating system than in an engine). In those respects it’s exactly what local officials are aiming for.
The bus is sleek, with a futuristic design and edges round enough to avoid the rectangle-on-wheels look of other START buses.
The mechanics at START are happy with the additions, too, McBath said.
Without an engine the technical components are simpler, and it requires no messy oil changes. The brakes are fundamentally different from those on diesel buses as well, and last far longer. Maintenance costs overall are “dramatically less,” Brugmann said.
With many of START’s vehicles in various stages of deterioration — Brugmann expects to lose at least two this year — Proterra’s models will be much-welcomed replacements.
“We need these,” Brugmann said. “Our buses are dropping like flies.”
Proterra will customize the buses to START’s liking, essentially using the same specs as current buses for seating configuration and other interior features. And when the time comes, a team from the company will help install charging infrastructure.
START will lease the batteries for 12 years, and midway through their life cycle Proterra will swap them out for new ones free of charge.
Westenkow said that with the technology in these buses “reaching maturity” after nearly a decade of innovation, START is buying in at the right time.
“You’re early on, you’re showing leadership, but you’re not the bleeding edge,” he said. “It’s the perfect time to be deploying this technology.”