Mountain Line prepares for July arrival of 6 electric buses

Electric buses cost about 20 cents per mile to run, while traditional buses cost about 60 cents a mile. (Proterra artist rendering)

With six electric buses headed for Missoula, Mountain Line is preparing its headquarters for the new fleet’s arrival in July.

The transit agency has operated diesel buses since the late 1970s. Now, thanks to a grant from the Federal Transit Administration, six 35-foot, zero-emission electric buses will start driving on all routes in Missoula.

“Right now, we’re really trying to make sure that we’re ready to receive the vehicles,” said Bill Pfeiffer, community outreach coordinator with Mountain Line. “We’re in the process of upgrading our power requirements here at our headquarters so that we’re able to charge the vehicles adequately, and that project is just being completed.”

The buses’ manufacturer, Proterra, will deliver the long-range, rapid-charging buses in late July. Six charging stations and a new transformer have been installed at Mountain Line’s headquarters on Shakespeare Street.

In the coming decade, Pfeiffer said he hopes that Mountain Line’s buses will all operate without diesel.

Mountain Line was also just awarded another grant through the Department of Environmental Quality to purchase two more buses within the next 18 months or so, said Corey Aldridge, general manager of Mountain Line.

“One of our primary directives as a public transit agency is to improve our air quality here in Missoula, which is a challenge,” Pfeiffer said. “We live in a non-attainment area. According to the Clean Air Act, we frequently have impaired air quality here in our valley and so we’re really excited to begin transitioning our fleet from diesel.”

The buses arriving in July will replace four diesel buses, one of which has been operating since the 1990s. Mountain Line’s strategic plan adopted last summer also aims to increase the number of vehicles in the fleet to keep up with current ridership through a number of phases.

“Sometimes we’re up against the wall where we need every bus out on the road with the current level of service,” Aldridge said. “With each of the phases that we’re looking at, there will be additional buses that will be needed for that. What’s coming in now will get us up to a good level of spares.”

City Council member Jordan Hess, who also serves as transportation director for the Associated Students of the University of Montana, said his organization has been operating two Proterra electric buses since 2016.

ASUM has seen savings in maintenance costs and greater efficiency moving passengers overall, Hess said. Electric buses get about 20 miles per gallon, compared to the 4 miles per gallon for a diesel bus.

Electric buses cost about 20 cents per mile to run, while traditional buses cost about 60 cents a mile.

“I think the single best place to start in terms of having an impact, though, is the municipal bus because it’s a vehicle in constant use and it carries a ton of people,” Hess said. “It’s a much better place to start than other fleet vehicles or privately owned vehicles because the impact is just so much greater.”

Missoula is the only city in Montana to operate electric buses, and with a plan to transition to more renewable power sources, operating these electric buses will become even more environmentally sound, Hess said.

However, many other universities and cities have reached out to Hess about ASUM’s experience with the buses.

Because of their success, ASUM applied for and was awarded a grant through the Federal Transit Administration to purchase three more electric buses.

Electric buses are the future, Hess said, and more and more cities and universities have seen the benefits here in Missoula.

“It’s really fantastic that Montana is recognized around the nation as being a resource for deploying electric vehicles,” Hess said.