The shape of things to come in public transportation looks like a big loaf of bread on little wheels, if a new electric bus being tested by the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority is any indication.
No joke: Its name is the e-Jest.
“Karsan is the builder, and the Damera Company is working on bringing it to the United States,” said Dan Rudiger, director of transportation for the MVTA, as he showed off the Turkish-built vehicle at the MVTA garage in Eagan on a recent afternoon. “This is the first one in service in the United States.”
As in, actually hauling passengers, for money, on the public right-of-way. MVTA has been using it as one of its fleet of about 20 connector buses — an on-demand “last mile” service meant to connect people with regular, scheduled transit service.
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It’s a test for the agency, which has a fleet of more than 150 transit vehicles, the vast majority of which are traditional 40-foot diesel powered buses. The MVTA is road-testing the small, 18-passenger bus, with a range of about 130 miles on a charge, to see if electric vehicles are practical for suburban transit. Although there have been some experiments with similar, self-driving vehicles in Minnesota, this one still requires a driver.
“Electric buses really are the wave of the future,” said MVTA CEO Luther Wynder. He says it’s not a matter of what powers it, but the lower maintenance and wear and tear on electric vehicles. “This vehicle here, it’s very economical. This could be a 12-year vehicle, as opposed to our smaller buses, which are a seven-year vehicle, with a minimal increase in overall price.”
That’s easy to say for now: the MVTA isn’t actually buying the test bus, and its sticker price is about 50 percent more than a traditional liquid-fuel vehicle. It’s only here for a couple of months, including a detour to and star turn at the American Public Transit Association legislative conference in Washington, D.C., later this month.
But the bus has had a taste of Minnesota winter and traffic, and Rudiger says it’s been sure-footed and reliable so far. It has front-wheel drive, a definite plus for snowy roads.
“It stuck to the road like glue. We were very impressed about how well it handled in snow,” Rudiger said.
It also has another advantage: Its “cutaway” chassis has a ramp in the middle of the vehicle, which puts the passenger floor just inches above the roadway, making for very easy boarding and easy wheelchair access. Rudiger said truck-based American-made small buses are built with their floors above their axles, requiring sometimes-extensive modifications or elaborate lifts to eliminate steps and stairs for passengers.
“The reaction we’re getting from customers ... they're like, ‘it's so neat.’ It’s just something different. It doesn’t look like anything else you’d see on the road,” Rudiger said “Operators love it, that you sit right above the tires, so it drives like a regular bus. The turning radius is amazing. It has a large windshield. We’re really impressed with it so far.”
The MVTA will keep using the bus on southern Twin Cities roads (after it gets back from Washington) through April 7.