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In Kansas, federal money helps make the case to test electric transit buses

Four new buses like this Proterra Catalyst battery electric model will soon begin operating in Wichita, Kansas.

Electric buses are coming to Kansas.

The transit agency in Wichita will be the first in the state to experiment with electrified transportation when it starts operating four electric buses early next month.

The agency and the city of Wichita decided the financials of the deal were too good to resist. The Federal Transit Administration, which has been awarding grants for electric buses since 2016, a year ago offered Wichita $2.3 million — enough to cover 85% of the cost of the buses and the needed charging infrastructure. The city is providing the remainder, just under $400,000.

The local utility, Evergy, made the deal even more attractive. State regulators approved a new rate last fall that allows the utility to sell electricity for bus charging at a deep discount during certain hours. If the buses are charged between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., when demand for power is lowest, Evergy will sell electricity for about 2.1 cents per kilowatt as opposed to the usual fare of 14.2 cents.

Nathaniel Hinkel, a spokesperson for Wichita Transit, said the agency is confident that, generally speaking, it can confine charging to off-peak hours.

“There might be some longer routes where we’ll have to evaluate,” he said. “We don’t see a problem right now.”

Evergy also contributed funds to upgrade electrical infrastructure so it can deliver the power needed, Hinkel said.

Electric buses are gaining momentum, and not just in big cities. The Federal Transit Authority has issued about 160 grants nationwide, including about 25 to Midwestern communities, many of them small or midsized. Topeka, Kansas, was awarded a grant in August similar to Wichita’s grant. A couple of other communities received money to install solar panels to help power buses.

Funds from the Volkswagen emissions-cheating settlement also are helping to finance a transition from diesel to electric transit buses. Columbia, Missouri, which received federal transit funds during the first year of the grant program, successfully applied for a piece of the Volkswagen settlement funds. It will use that to provide its match required by the Federal Transit Authority, meaning the city itself will pay nothing.

In Wichita, Hinkel said the transit agency has thought carefully about how to deploy the buses. The city’s fleet includes a total of 46 buses. Initially, the city will put the electric buses on routes with relatively few stoplights and that require less starting and stopping.

“Acceleration will drain the battery faster,” Hinkel said. “We’re getting a feel for how they work.”

Once the agency is comfortable with the technology, Hinkel said it will shift the new buses around to other routes.

“They’ll be seeing service on all of our routes most likely at some point. It’s partly so everyone can experience it.”

Wichita Transit will consider purchasing more electric buses to replace the diesel vehicles on the road as they go out of service. But because electric buses cost about four times what diesel buses cost, Hinkel said, the city will be looking for outside revenue sources, even though reduced fueling and maintenance costs make electric buses cheaper than diesel vehicles over time.

“I don’t think we’d consider them without grant funding,” he said.

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