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Duluth unveils new electric bus

The DTA officially unveiled it first of a fleet of seven electric buses Thursday morning. Attendees of the event got a free ride up to Superior Street and back to the Duluth Transportation Center. Bob King / Forum News Service 1 / 2
Passengers take a ride around the downtown on the DTA's new electric bus Thursday, Oct. 25. Bob King / Forum News Service2 / 2

DULUTH -- It had that new bus smell.

With a shiny metallic ceiling, unscathed floors and even a rear window, Duluth’s newest city bus took to the streets Thursday morning, Oct. 25, for its inaugural loop around downtown, completely carbon dioxide-free.

“To be celebrating departing from diesel is kind of an emotional shift in my brain,” said Charlie Zelle, the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation. “But...I think the electrification of our fleet is the future.”

Unlike its noisier cousins, the loudest feature of the seven new buses won’t be the engine but rather the commotion of its passengers. The new electric buses will also sport a fiberglass body so they are lighter with rounded edges.

“It’s got a distinctive shape, kind of like a whale,” said Phil Pumphrey, general manager of the Duluth Transit Authority.

Duluth is the first city in Minnesota to use these buses and one of 10 public transportation organizations in the country to take the first step toward zero-emissions public transit.

“We are going to be comparing the operating and maintenance costs of electric buses with conventional diesel buses,” DTA Board President, Aaron Bransky said. “We have a robust maintenance program and keep records of how much things cost and they’re going to work.”

It’s one of the reasons Duluth was selected for the $6.3 million grant from the Federal Transit Authority. Its record keeping will help the city gain a better understanding of the efficiency of the buses. And in a hilly city that reaches sub-freezing temperatures annually, Duluth was the right choice for the experiment.

“It’s a very calculated experiment,” Pumphrey said.

He added that electric buses have been around for awhile, but their mainstream success has only taken off in the past five years. Because of Duluth’s geography, the city is now benefiting from that trend, capitalizing on a future that both urban centers in the Twin Cities and Rochester hope to soon embrace.

The first-time expense of the buses wasn’t cheap. Pumphrey said they’ll cost about $900,000 each — about twice as much as the diesel buses the city owns now.

However, Bransky said he hopes the long-term benefits outweigh the initial fee.

“Generally, electric vehicles cost more on the front end but cost less to run over time,” he said. “Not just fuel, but maintenance as well.”

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