Ben Franklin Transit's electric bus to hit Tri-City streets

Ben Franklin Transit officials didn’t toot their own horn Thursday but they were plenty proud showing off their first all-electric bus.

The bus, which will hit the streets this summer, can go more than 130 miles on a single charge, said Dick Ciccone, Ben Franklin’s manager of fleet, facilities and special projects.

It’s the first all-electric bus in the nation that can go that far without a charge to be put into regular service with a transit agency, said Macy Neshati, with Complete Coach Works, the California firm that retrofitted the coach.

The bus was paid for with a $700,000 grant from the federal government through CALSTART, a nonprofit made up of 150 companies that promotes clean transportation, and was directed to Washington by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

The bus, which the transit authority originally bought in 2005, was rebuilt by Complete Coach Works after its front end was heavily damaged in an accident last year.

Now, the bus costs 7 cents a mile to operate, compared with $1.03 a mile when it used diesel, said Ciccone.

“When you take out the oil changes, the transmission changes, the air conditioning, the cost savings are going to be considerable,” he said.

Initially, the bus, which takes four hours to charge at Ben Franklin’s Richland headquarters, will be used on a number of routes so people across the Tri-Cities can ride it, Ciccone said. Then it will be placed permanently on Route 26 in Richland, which involves 125 miles of driving a day.

But don’t expect the transit authority to convert all of its buses to electricity any time soon.

Technology still prevents electric buses from handling longer routes, such as trips to Prosser, so Ben Franklin Transit will continue using diesel buses on many routes in the near future.

“This is just part of the mix,” he said. “There is a place for both of them.

Neshati, vice president of sales and marketing for Complete Coach Works, said he expects other transit authorities in the county will soon be adding electric coaches.

“The battery technology is evolving so rapidly, we’re already thinking that six months down the road we’ll have a battery that will go to 150 miles,” he said.

Macy said the transit agency in New York is interested in the bus technology, after a prototype was used there.

While the lithium iron phosphate batteries cause the 29,760-pound Richland bus to weigh almost 3,000 pounds more than it did in its diesel days, its weight was kept manageable by using seats and flooring that weighed well below what typically is found in the industry, Macy said.

In a statement, Murray, chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee, said the Tri-Cities was a natural location for the bus.

“The Tri-Cities community is positioning itself as a hub for emerging technologies, and I was proud to support the federal funding that’s already paying dividends through this innovative bus design,” she said.

On a ride around the area near Ben Franklin’s headquarters, passengers in the 42 seats noted how quiet the bus is, becoming virtually silent when it stopped at a light.

“You’ve got more tire noise than anything else,” Macy said.