Gasoline prices in the Pacific Northwest are hovering around $5 a gallon. Greenhouse gas emissions have returned to their ominous pre-pandemic levels. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, when the world shows you what’s to come, believe it. And right now, the world is once again showing us that fossil fuels are a dead end.
First Steps Towards an Electric Future
My company, MTRWestern, a regional motorcoach and corporate transportation provider, has accepted that reality and is committed to delivering carbon-free group and intercity transportation throughout the Pacific Northwest. Today marks a monumental step forward on this journey with the launch of the United States’ first intercity electric bus service on the Amtrak Cascades route. The bus will provide additional connectivity for Amtrak between Seattle, WA and Bellingham, WA.
The Van Hool CX45E all-electric motorcoach selected for the service is a leading-edge beauty that can carry 56 passengers and travel 250 plus miles between charges with zero emissions. This connector service will save approximately 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel per year, cutting CO2 emission by 109 tons or 218,000 pounds annually.
As a first step toward a zero emissions future, our Charter Bus Electrification Project calls for 15% of MTRWestern’s fleet to be composed of electric vehicles (EVs) by 2025, starting with our regional charter vehicles. That’s an audacious goal and one we are pursuing with intentionality. We made our last entirely internal combustion motorcoach fleet purchase in 2021. Going forward, every time we buy a group of coaches, a portion of the purchase will be EV.
The Impact of Infrastructure
But we can’t get to that carbon-free promised land alone. Electrifying the future of our industry requires the support of the government and business community to help underwrite investment, provide infrastructure and nurture demand for commercial EV transportation.
Some might argue that in our capitalist system a company should take on all the costs of a new enterprise in hopes of reaping all the rewards of its success. And that’s true in most cases. However, electrifying group transportation is not a routine business venture; it’s a transformational undertaking that offers tremendous rewards to the entire community, including better air quality and less reliance on problematic oil sources.
Our recent efforts to select the right EV coach for our business illustrate the challenges we face and the need for cooperative action. Why hasn’t MTRWestern ordered a fleet of CX45Es? Because running electric motorcoaches is currently financially and logistically impractical.
The CX45E and similar EV coaches cost about $1 million, roughly twice the price of a comparable internal combustion coach. While lower maintenance costs partially offset the EV’s higher price tag, it’s easy to see that going electric in the competitive transportation market would create a significant obstacle to profitability.
Government’s Role in Infrastructure Support
Federal and state governments could advance the EV future with tax policies, subsidies and other measures to support businesses that invest in EV transportation. There is precedent for such an approach to technological innovation. In the 19th century, the federal government underwrote the western railroads through land grants that transferred 129 million acres to the rail companies. Most of that land was, in turn, sold to settlers. This policy raised capital for the railroads and boosted demand for their services by populating the areas along their tracks.
In 2014, Atlanta had the second-highest level of EV registrations among American cities (San Francisco was No. 1). The biggest reason: a since-modified $5,000 Georgia income tax subsidy that helped make lower-end all-electric cars, such as Nissan’s Leaf, cheaper to operate than some internal combustion vehicles. One Atlanta Nissan dealership told The Wall Street Journal that the all-in monthly cost of driving a Leaf on a two-year lease was about $28 after factoring in that tax break.
The Charging Infrastructure Challenge
The government also has a critical role to play on the logistical side. A fleet of EV coaches without charging infrastructure is like a baseball without a bat. As of August 2023, we have installed 3 DC Fast Charging (DCFC) stations at our MTRWestern Seattle operations center.
These Level 3 chargers are critical to our facility infrastructure to “juice” our new fully electric bus and to provide capacity as we transition and grow our electrified fleet. The 150kW fast charge stations mean we can top-off one of our electric buses, from 10% to 80% charge, in just 3.5 hours, versus an entire day on your standard Level 2 charger. With our 250 miles of range, that’s about 1 mile for every minute of charge time on our Van Hool CX45E bus.
Prior to installing these DCFC chargers, we had to recharge our electric bus at various locations as Seattle lacks sufficient heavy-duty charging stations. While city leaderships are eager to enter the electric transport age, cost considerations and competing demands on the budget have hindered progress.
State governments can midwife the EV future by building or subsidizing the construction of a network of heavy-duty charging stations that can accommodate trucks, buses and vans. Specifically, we ask that Washington and Oregon earmark a portion of the funds received under the recently enacted federal infrastructure act for such an undertaking.
We also need our government leaders to enact any legislation required to clear the way for charging infrastructure. Zoning and outdated safety regulations are two areas where new laws might be necessary. Governments could also direct their agencies to give preference to EV buses and coaches when purchasing transportation services.
Winning the EV Future Together
An EV future will benefit all regional businesses by making the Pacific Northwest an even more desirable place to live and work. Getting to that future vision of tomorrow requires the region’s largest companies to support today’s efforts. If the Pacific Northwest’s largest employers and public facilities were to underwrite transportation companies’ EV investments, it would hasten the day when a significant number of employees, guests and tourists move across our regions with zero emissions.
The region’s electric utilities can back the effort by exploring heavy-duty charging stations’ costs and construction requirements and developing pricing that will nurture rather than strangle EV coach travel.
A wise person said no one can whistle a symphony. It takes an orchestra to play it. Let’s all come together to play the song of all-electric group transportation. The applause will be deafening.
~ Jeremy Butzlaff