Equipped with Wi-Fi and GPS, TCAT has sent a new fleet of electric buses zipping down Ithaca’s streets.
The electric fleet, unveiled on Earth Day, comes after a significant decrease in ridership due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Added technology, according to TCAT general manager Scot Vanderpool, could be the key to enticing riders back.
In addition to newly installed Wi-Fi and GPS apps, which allows riders to see where the bus is on its route, the electric buses have outlets on the back of every seat for riders to charge their devices.
Releasing the electric fleet is years in the making, as TCAT has worked to meet its goal of offering more sustainable public transportation. The Volkswagen settlement in 2017 gave New York State $127.7 million to put toward moving away from diesel and toward electric batteries, giving Tompkins County the funding to move away from diesel.
In 2018, TCAT applied for a competitive federal grant through the Low or No Emission Grant Program, or the Low-No Program, which provides state authorities funding to buy low-emission buses and facilities to house them. TCAT won the grant and was additionally awarded three electric buses. Although electric buses cost approximately twice as much as diesel buses, TCAT was able to buy four more buses with the Volkswagen settlement.
According to Vanderpool, TCAT worked with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to get the funds from the settlement. The state paid for the differences between the electric and diesel buses. Additional infrastructure funding came from the New York Power Authority.
According to Gary Stewart, associate vice president for community relations at Cornell, the University, the city and the county have been funding the TCAT since the start. Stewart said he hopes these new electric buses will foster more student engagement with the TCAT.
“Our collective efforts have helped make the award-winning TCAT one of the greenest and most progressive bus systems of its size in the United States,” Stewart wrote to The Sun. “We hope the new buses and related opportunities might lead to more student research and outreach projects that will benefit TCAT and the community at large.”
According to Vanderpool, the financial impact of maintaining the electric buses may be less than diesel buses. He said electric buses require significantly fewer parts than the diesel buses and that long-term savings from fuel costs will be significant.
“There are some charging costs, but they’re not nearly anywhere near the costs we’ve paid in the past years for fuel,” Vanderpool said.
Vanderpool said the new electric buses will be strategically placed throughout the county so that everyone can ride in a new bus. He hopes that the TCAT fleet will be 100 percent electric by 2035.
“This whole idea of no emissions is exciting for everybody, and I hope that’s something that’s going to entice people to come back and ride,” Vanderpool said.
Andrew Lee ’24 has found the new technology appealing, particularly the GPS tracking. His experience with the new technology has encouraged him to consider buying a TCAT bus pass in the future after his free first-year pass expires.
“GPS tracking on the bus routes would help individuals like me who are not so familiar with Ithaca navigate our way around the city,” he said.
Paine Gronemeyer ’24 rode a new electric bus at the downtown Earth Day unveiling and described it as a comfortable ride. According to Gronemeyer, the electric buses were much quieter and the acceleration felt smoother than the diesel buses.
Gronemeyer said that seeing a small, local transportation agency so committed to greener public transportation was surprising.
“It’s a pretty big deal for a relatively small town to commit to having their buses 100 percent battery powered,” Gronemeyer said.
Vanderpool expressed optimism for a TCAT future driven by sustainability.
“I’m really excited about the future,” Vanderpool said. “We’ve got all these sustainable options, awards and grants, and I think we’re moving as a nation in the right direction.”