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Charleston Tri-county Area Inches Closer to All-Electric Bus System

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The greater Charleston area’s public transportation system is one step closer to being quieter and much more efficient.

The Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority said that due to an $8.3 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant, it will be able to buy 13 to 15 additional new electric buses and replace the older, less efficient diesel ones.

The move means around 20 percent of CARTA’s 120 or so buses will be electric-powered as the transit authority shifts away from using traditional fuel sources.

“We’re going to try and stretch every dollar we can and maximize that benefit,” said Mike Seekings, a Charleston City Council member and CARTA chairman. “It takes us closer, obviously, but we still have a ways to go.”

Each bus costs around $600,000 and is manufactured in Greenville by a company called Proterra.

In November, CARTA unveiled plans for six of the electric buses to go into service during the first quarter of 2020 after the organization voted last year to transition its entire fleet of diesel buses to zero-emission alternative sources in the coming years.

“It’s a testament to the staff at CARTA at how hard they are working and how committed they are to modernizing our fleet,” Seekings said.

Since the first electric buses have yet to go into the field, Seekings said it was difficult to estimate exactly how much money the transition would save in the long run.

“But the electric charge is much cheaper than a tank of gas, the buses get about 100 miles on a single charge, and the operating costs by fuel consumption is significantly cheaper,” he said. “We will spend a lot less on maintenance for the electric buses, and I don’t want to give a percentage, but our maintenance costs are going to be reduced dramatically.”

Seekings said the electric buses will be replacing ones that have over 1 million miles on them, resulting in “significant” cost savings.

CARTA will continue to reduce the footprint of its traditional fuel usage through the yearly budgeting process and every grant application the group can possibly pursue to replace the aging fleet, Seekings said.

“We have a mandate to move toward alternative forms of fuel and we will continue to do so,” he said.

In a news release announcing the grant, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao praised the efforts of cities and local governments around the country working to upgrade their fleet of public transportation buses.

“Public bus systems throughout the country provide millions of Americans access to jobs, health care, grocery stores and other vital services,” she said.

The move to begin replacing CARTA’s fleet comes as the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments continues to receive updates on the Lowcountry Rapid Transit plan, a tangential effort to address the tri-county’s growing traffic woes.