Fairfax Connector officials by year’s end aim to begin a pilot program featuring electric buses on eight routes in central Fairfax County – and are gearing up for a similar effort in the county’s southern reaches.
The transit system already has made progress on the program, installing chargers and transformers at the electric buses’ facility in June and making other modifications there, said Dwayne Pelfrey, Transit Services Division chief for the Fairfax County Department of Transportation.
Officials expect the bus manufacturer to start producing the electric buses in late July, said Pelfrey during a June 14 briefing of the Board of Supervisors’ Transportation Committee. Bus deliveries, operator training and maintenance support will begin in October and the pilot program is slated to begin service in December after the manufacturer delivers the final buses.
Fairfax Connector will put eight New Flyer Xcelsior electric buses into service on Routes 461 (Flint Hill-Tapawingo-Vienna Metrorail Station), 462 (Dunn Loring-Navy Federal-Tysons), 467 (Dunn Loring-Tysons), 622 (Penderbrook-Fair Ridge), 630 (Centreville South-Fair Oaks-Vienna Metro), 642 (Sully Station-Vienna Metro), 651 (Chantilly-Brookfield-Vienna Metro) and 698 (Vienna-Pentagon).
The electric buses will operate out of Fairfax Connector’s West Ox Bus Division on routes in western and central Fairfax County that serve minority populations along Interstate 66 and Routes 50 and 123.
Four of the routes operate all day, three are in service during either peak or off-peak hours and one, going between Vienna and the Pentagon, will allow system officials to evaluate long-haul service.
Fairfax Connector officials have begun planning for another pilot electric-bus program for the southern part of the county in the Lee and Mount Vernon districts, starting in 2023. It currently takes one to two years to obtain buses and system officials hope to have four in time for that initiative.
Supervisor Daniel Storck (D-Mount Vernon), a former School Board member, inquired why officials used a 12-year life expectancy for mass-transit buses, but a 15-year one for school buses.
Pelfrey responded that unlike school buses, which typically rack up 10,000 miles per year, ones used for mass transit travel three times as far and are built to a heavy-duty standard because they must run all day long.
Mass-transit vehicle also have more complicated electronics and components and cost about four times more than school buses – and that’s just for standard, non-electric buses, he added.
County officials buy buses with 12-year expected service lives, but typically extend them another three or four years by doing mid-life overhauls, said Fairfax County Department of Transportation Director Thomas Biesiadny.
Fairfax Connector – which logs about 13.5 million miles annually using more than 340 vehicles on 100 routes – is Virginia’s largest transit system and about the 70th biggest in North America, Pelfrey said.
The county’s Zero Emission Bus Program aims to switch to all no-emission buses by 2035. Its goals are help the county meet the Board of Supervisors’ carbon-neutral goal by 2040, achieve long-term environmental and maintenance-practices sustainability, and avoid reductions in Fairfax Connector service levels that might discourage usage.
Transportation officials will consult with county supervisors before buying any new diesel buses after fiscal 2024, Pelfrey said.
“We intend to lead the transition to a greener future,” he said, adding, “The technology is still developing. We’re working to learn what we don’t know.”
Fewer than 1,300 zero-emission buses are in service now in the United States, he said. As of September 2021, they constituted less than 3 percent of transit fleets, with most transit agencies using fewer than 10.
Only 17 zero-emission buses were in service in Virginia as of last September and most Northern Virginia transit agencies still are in the nascent planning stages for using the buses.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which operates the Metrobus system as well as Metrorail, is slated to receive about 12 zero-emission buses by year’s end, Pelfrey said.
Alexandria Transit Co.’s DASH bus service has 14 such buses in service and has secured funding for about 20 more, he said.
According to a recent presentation given to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, officials said those DASH electric buses had encountered challenges regarding hilly terrain and colder weather, said Supervisor Walter Alcorn (D-Hunter Mill), who chairs the board’s Transportation Committee.
Electric buses also have shorter range compared with those powered by fossil fuels. About two-thirds of Fairfax Connector routes will exceed the range capabilities of the latest bus batteries, Pelfrey said.
Manufacturers may have difficulty meeting the growing demand for electric buses, as there has been a shortage of computer chips and heavy international competition to obtain the raw materials for the buses’ batteries.
More zero-emission buses also will increase pressure on the electrical grid, which already has resiliency and reliability problems.
Switching to electric buses will take extensive planning and engineering – including estimates of life-cycle costs and identification of capital-funding sources for the fleet and its infrastructure – plus coordination with Dominion Energy and a pilot program to test the buses’ performance.
“Infrastructure is really an unknown at this point,” said Pelfrey, who estimated the additional cost of transferring the fleet from diesel to electric at “north of $120 million.”