Beginning in the next two weeks, if you use the Tuolumne County Transit Dial-A-Ride service you may be picked up in a brand new electric vehicle.
The eight-seat van, a Ford Transit purchased from AZ Bus Sales and converted to electric by Colorado-based Lighting E-Motors, is Tuolumne County’s first electric vehicle, but County Supervisor Ryan Campbell hopes it will be the first of many as the county kicks into gear to adhere to new California emissions standards.
“Rural transit agencies have kind of a reputation for being behind the curve. I can say that we are not,” Campbell said. “Tuolumne County Transit is constantly looking at and discussing new technologies … trying to change with the times to make our organization meet the needs of our riders.”
Campbell said electric vehicles have emerged as a rapidly developing industry which is becoming increasingly affordable and supported.
“Clearly, the emerging technology is electric vehicles,” Campbell said. “The technology is improving to a level where it is becoming cheaper and making more sense to use all-electric vehicles.”
“The laws are changing too,” added Tuolumne County Transit Manager Becky Day.
Tuolumne County Transit needs to submit a plan to the California Resources Board by next year for how it will transition its fleet to zero-emission vehicles, according to the agency’s executive director, Darin Grossi.
Half of all newly-purchased vehicles will need to be zero-emission vehicles by 2026, and 100% will need to be by 2030. Grossi says the agency is looking at both electric and hydrogen-electric options to fulfill this mandate.
The county Board of Supervisors voted to approve funding for the project. The total cost of the vehicle was $208,788, with funding coming from three sources: $107,487 from the Public Transportation Modernization, Improvement, and Service Enhancement Account (PTMISEA), $52,750 from the Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Project (HVIP) and $48,551 from local transportation funds.
The van was delivered to Tuolumne County Transit on June 28, Grossi said, and staff at Tuolumne County Transit have spent the last week training to become more comfortable with the differences between driving the agency’s existing buses and the new vehicle.
Grossi said the van is rated to 140 miles on one charge, which should suffice for a day’s worth of service, but the mileage may vary based on weather conditions and terrain.
This vehicle alone will divert an estimated 7.3 tons per year of carbon emissions, Grossi said — a number that will only increase once the fleet adds more zero-emission vehicles. Paying discounted Tuolumne County Power Agency rates, which Campbell estimated was only 25% of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. rates, will save costs in that area.
“Not only are we avoiding the high gas prices, even the cost for power is less,” Campbell said. “It makes sense on a lot of fronts to move to electric.”
There are a few notable differences from a driver’s perspective with the new vehicle. For example, current buses have a coasting period where the vehicle will continue its momentum, whereas the new vehicle will begin to slow much quicker if the driver takes their foot of the gas, according to Tuolumne County Transit driver Janey Blaum.
“There’s going to be a bit of a learning curve,” Blaum said.
Another difference between gas and diesel buses is volume, with Blaum saying it’s important to keep a close watch on the speedometer because the engine doesn’t give an indication of how fast it is moving. Like many hybrid and electric vehicles, the van has visual cues on the dashboard which help drivers maintain maximum efficiency.
“Our drivers have told us it’s like driving a video game,” Blaum said.
Campbell said Tuolumne County Transit has started to shift its focus from existing public transportation and bus systems which follow a fixed route to a modernized, on-demand transit system which allows for more versatility in how the agency approaches public transit.
“That model is no longer what people want in rural communities, and it’s not as utilized,” Campbell said. “What’s becoming much more popular is our Dial-A-Ride system.”
Campbell said that the smaller size of the new vehicle lends itself perfectly to the style of Dial-A-Ride, which generally uses smaller, more maneuverable vehicles than existing full-size buses or trolleys because of the on-demand requirements of the service.
Dial-A-Ride services were made free to the general public every day of the week during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has continued ever since. The service is, “the best kept secret in Tuolumne County, unfortunately,” according to Campbell.
“We’re carrying a smaller number of people to a specific destination rather than a larger number of people on a fixed route,” Campbell said. “This is our first effort to lean into that change and adopt a more modern approach to transit.”
The smaller vehicles and Dial-A-Ride service also work better for transporting disabled riders, Blaum said, because drivers can spend the time to load them on and off the vehicle without the inconvenience of a fixed-route system with many other riders. The van has a lift rated up to 500 pounds, and can transport wheelchair users.
Adding a zero-emission vehicle to a public transit fleet compounds the existing benefits of public transit on its own — helping to limit total carbon emission. According to Grossi, Tuolumne County Transit riders have expressed an interest in the agency doing everything it can be better for the environment.
As this will be Tuolumne County Transit’s first electric vehicle, Campbell and Grossi say it will serve as a test case for the agency’s plan to move towards zero-emission vehicles in the future, helping to understand the benefits and drawbacks of the technology.
“It’s something I’ve wanted to see the entire four years I’ve been on the board,” Campbell said. “I think it’s a really good addition to our fleet.”