Report: RTD, Colorado Schools Should Prioritize Electric Buses to Save Money, Reduce Pollution

Photo: David Sachs
Photo: David Sachs

If the Regional Transportation District and Colorado school districts invested in electric buses, they would not only curb harmful diesel emissions, but would save many millions in the long run, according to a new report from the Frontier Group, CoPIRG Foundation, and Environment Colorado [PDF].

RTD is one of a few big-city transit agencies in the country to sport electric buses. It has 36, all operating on the 16th Street Mall, Denver’s most popular bus route. But that’s only good for 4 percent of the total fleet. Most of RTD’s fleet operates on diesel — 828 buses out of 874, according to the report. Only five transit agencies in the country have more.

Making the switch to an electric fleet would carry upfront costs but could save the agency $81,000 per bus over each vehicle’s lifetime, for a long-term savings of $67 million on maintenance and fuel.

It would also cut 47,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year — the equivalent of removing 9,000 cars from area roads.

Image: "Electric Buses: Clean Transportation for Healthier Neighborhoods and Cleaner Air.”
Image: “Electric Buses: Clean Transportation for Healthier Neighborhoods and Cleaner Air.”

And the cleaner buses would result in cleaner air.

“Diesel can cause a number of health problems, including asthma and cancer, and unfortunately that’s what is powering most of America’s buses,” said Alana Miller, a Denver-based policy analyst at Frontier Group and co-author of the report. “Our report shows that all-electric buses can help cities address public health and climate concerns while saving money in the long-run.”

The report also identifies the benefits of switching to electric buses for school districts. Colorado has more than 4,000 yellow school buses that run on diesel. They carry 42 percent of the state’s schoolkids, said Danny Katz, executive director of CoPIRG. Each electric school bus can save districts nearly $2,000 a year in fuel and $4,400 a year in maintenance costs, according the report.

“Electric buses remove dangerous air pollution from our communities and eliminate the exposure of kids on schools buses and commuters using transit to dirty exhaust,” Katz said. “Electric buses are also cheaper to maintain, fuel, and operate. Every transit agency and school district should begin converting one hundred percent of their buses to electric.”

Screen Shot 2018-05-08 at 9.19.52 AM
Image: “Electric Buses: Clean Transportation for Healthier Neighborhoods and Cleaner Air.”

Before reaping the long-term rewards of electric buses, there are the initial costs of purchasing them. One possible source of revenue is the $68 million Colorado is getting from the Volkswagen settlement, of which $36 million is earmarked for school and transit buses. Other funds are reserved for charging stations.

The report authors also recommend creating incentive programs to help finance the upfront cost of electric buses and charging infrastructure.

“There are state and federal grants that fleet managers can pursue as well as a role for utilities,” Katz said, “like creating a loan program to help spread out the up-front cost of electric buses and developing partnerships to allow school districts to sell back excess energy in bus batteries to the grid at peak times.”

  • John Riecke

    As long as they turn down the volume on those idiotic noisemakers. I swear the new electric busses are louder than the old diesels they’re replacing.

    • TakeFive

      lol, they do that because electric buses are ‘dangerously’ too quiet.

  • TakeFive

    Electric buses can make a yuge impact… Consider this according to Bloomberg:

    Electric buses were seen as a joke at an industry conference in Belgium seven years ago when the Chinese manufacturer BYD Co. showed an early model. “Everyone was laughing at BYD for making a toy,” recalled Isbrand Ho, the Shenzhen-based company’s managing director in Europe. “And look now. Everyone has one.”

    Btw, BYD is making RTD’s electric buses for the 16th Street Mall. BYD was also featured when Warren Buffet flew to China and became a BYD investor a few years ago.
    Talk to me about some numbers.

    The numbers are staggering. Every five weeks, Chinese cities add 9,500 of the zero-emissions transporters—the equivalent of London’s entire working fleet, according Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Suddenly, buses with battery-powered motors are a serious matter with the potential to revolutionize city transport—and add to the forces reshaping the energy industry.

    Another way to look at the diesel/energy savings:

    For every 1,000 battery-powered buses on the road, about 500 barrels a day of diesel fuel will be displaced from the market, according to BNEF calculations. This year, the volume of fuel not needed may rise 37 percent to 279,000 barrels a day because of electric transport including cars and light trucks, about as much oil as Greece consumes, according to BNEF. Buses account for about 233,000 barrels of that total.

  • mckillio

    While I agree with this in general, it makes more sense to me to phase out our current buses, obviously starting with the older ones first.

    The price of these buses will continue to drop and plenty of our buses are either too new or travel too far of distances/primarily operate on the highway to be feasible current EV tech. It also seems unwise to have exactly all of the same buses as they could have recalls that would then affect them all at the same time etc. Not saying we should have different brands, we want to keep maintenance similar between buses, but rather diversify in terms of model years.

    • TakeFive

      Exactly, RTD has no money to speak of for capital investments. Perhaps if you and I made a donation we could come up with enough for one seat. 🙂

      Proterra which designed an EV bus from the ground up recently opened their 2nd manufacturing facility in L.A./City of Industry. Along with Greenville, South Carolina I believe they’re backlogged a year with orders. Salt Lake City SCF thread showed a new beefed up model that they test drove up to the ski areas. I think most of the manufacturers are now making them including New Flyer out of Minneapolis which RTD has done a lot of business with.

    • Denverdant

      mckillo makes a good point. I wonder if the savings calculations factored in the cost to RTD and BPS of early retirement of diesel buses. Transit organizations assume a certain cycle of replacement of vehicles and a certain salvage value of the vehicle at the end of that cycle. If they replace buses ahead of schedule the salvage value should go up (because they should be able to get a higher price for a newer bus), but they also advance the replacement schedule for the newer buses. As with so much else in sustainability, this is at heart a financing problem. I’d suggest consulting a group like Quantified Ventures ( to see if there is a financing tool available to allow RTD and DPS to advance the replacement of existing buses ahead of schedule.

  • Bjorn

    Electric buses could probably replace local buses, provided that transit routes were blocked in a way that no bus was scheduled to stay on route longer than 12 hours or so. Electric buses have enough range to cover peak-only trips, but all day service would have to be scheduled such that the midday buses went to the garage at 6 pm and evening service was covered by buses starting at 3 pm for the afternoon peak period.

    School bus routes are usually short enough that range isn’t an issue in cities, but many school districts have rural routes too lengthy for current electric buses. Charging facility access might be an issue as some districts let their bus drivers on rural routes take their buses home with them to save on deadhead costs (although the buses might be parked at the district’s garage while school is in session).

    Electric buses aren’t yet practical on longer-distance regional routes; electric motors work best in stop-and-go traffic conditions, while diesel motors are most efficient at high-yet-constant speeds.

    • TakeFive

      A Proterra Catalyst recently set a new world record of going a 1,100 miles. Proterra buses have chargers that can be set up along a route; takes about ten minutes. River City loves their Proterra’s.

  • LazyReader

    So it’ll break even in about 13 years, will the bus even last that long. The average life expectancy of a bus chassis coach is 12 years.
    Surveys show that a third of ride-sharing users would otherwise have taken transit if it were convenient. Given the rapid growth of Uber and Lyft since 2014, that suggests that two-thirds to three-fourths of the decline in transit ridership is explained by the growth in ride sharing.

    The myth that APTA wants to spread is that ridership declines are due to traffic congestion slowing buses, so therefore transit needs more money to build dedicated rail and bus ways. A secondary myth is that another energy shortage is right around the corner, so we should spend more tax dollars on transit now so it will be ready when gas prices once again rise above $4 a gallon.

    Neither myth withstands scrutiny. Yes, buses are slow, but buses have always been slow. Transit agencies can do more to speed them up by reducing the number of stops and introducing pre-boarding fare payment systems than by building dedicated transit ways, or utilize Vanpools that offer exact destination transportation. But slow buses aren’t the root cause of declining ridership. Nor is the transit industry likely to be rescued by another energy shortage anytime soon.

    • TakeFive

      I thought you were a Nashville lover; now you’re on the Denver thread?

      Proterra manufactures one of the most durable electric transit vehicles in the industry. The carbon composite formulation of the Catalyst not only minimizes repairs and maintenance but it maximizes body life. Steel-body buses will experience significant fatigue and corrosion throughout their average 12-year lifespan. However, the advanced carbon composite body of the Catalyst resists rust and can stay in continuous service for years longer, with an expected lifespan of up to 18 years.

    • paul s

      even if teh buses die every 12 years teh cost of inhaling the fumes from diesels is not calculated cancer and asthma treatments are a drain on the lifes of our future.
      so for less tehn a 10% premium per bus youth dont have to eat tailpipes on the way to school. seems worthwhile. teh 13 year cost trend will also continue to lower it self as battery costs and battery replacements continue to fall. if you never sat in a diesel bus to travel to school do you think cost of care for that subset of humans would be less over there lifetime?

  • Chris

    Slightly off topic, but does anyone know if there is much progress towards autonomous buses / trains? Seems like all the discussion is about autonomous cars but a train or BRT with its only right of way seems much easier / safer to be self-driven. Seems like it could save RTD millions in staffing costs and allow more frequency. For example, you could have one train car every 5 minutes instead of four train cars every 20 minutes for essentially the same cost. Is this something that’s being looked at?

    • Denverdant

      Technically there’s already an autonomous train in Denver – it’s the shuttle that runs between the terminal and the three concourses at DEN. No driver. As for buses, EasyMile is experimenting with a driverless shuttle at Panasonic’s Pena Station.

    • TakeFive

      Yes, definitely, as well as trackless train/buses.


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