Location: Chapel Hill, NC
Fleet Type: Municipal Transit Agency Fleet

 

Narrative

Chapel Hill Transit is a municipal transit agency with zero fare at boarding, sometimes called fare-free transit. Chapel Hill Transit (CHT) is funded by the Town of Chapel Hill, the Town of Carrboro, and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) in conjunction with the UNC Medical Center. UNC pays more than the towns’ combined contributions as they cover the total cost of routes operated to directly support the campus, and the bus service covers the community and the campus. UNC provides on-campus ADA trips and operates a limited shuttle service for late evening and weekend hours when Chapel Hill Transit does not operate.

As of November 2023, the agency was providing approximately 93% of the pre-Covid service, which equates to approximately 2 million miles annually, and 2023 ridership is expected to be around 4.5 million boardings and like most transit agencies nationally, is seeing ridership increase back toward pre-covid levels. Currently and pre-pandemic, fuel is the most unpredictable cost of the transit system and can vary from 10 – 15% of the total budget. Purchasing electric coaches is based on available monies and an agreement with the Towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro that electric buses will be bought when grant funding is available.

A goal of the Town of Chapel Hill and CHT is moving toward zero emissions. The Town embraces sustainability and has consistently led in exploring emissions reduction options. CHT was one of the systems in the state to integrate hybrid buses into a municipal fleet, having 29 hybrids at one time, making it the largest hybrid fleet in North Carolina. Lessons learned from introducing hybrid buses in the past, such as funding and maintenance, were applied in preparation for electric buses.

Outputs & Outcomes

Outputs:

As of November 2023, CHT’s bus fleet has 93 buses, including 18 demand-response vehicles and five articulated buses. Four buses are electric, seven are ordered for December or January delivery, and there is funding for around 10 more.  CHT also has 14 battery electric vehicles primarily for supervisors and administration staff; some are service trucks. The agency is reviewing new electric truck options for equipment maintenance.

For three buses, NCDOT provided the total funding match. Other vehicles have been purchased with funds from FTA Low- and No-Emission Grant funds. VW Settlement funds contributed to the purchase of some vehicles. UNC’s student-run Renewable Energy Special Projects Committee paid the $380,000 cost difference between the electric alternative to a diesel bus.

Training is mandatory for all bus operators, and CHT training is evolving with the use of vehicles to maximize efficient operation with experience. Training has also been provided for local law enforcement and emergency management personnel.  

Outcomes:

After 18 months of service, the average fuel efficiency of an electric bus was 9.3 miles per diesel gallon equivalent (mpdge). Electric buses traveled 13.8 mpdge compared to a diesel’s average fuel economy of 4.5 miles per gallon. The range of the vehicles varies greatly during hot and cold weather conditions compared to 140 miles on a charge in ideal conditions. Range can be decreased by as much as 40% due to the energy requirements for running heaters during the coldest months.

As of October 2023, electric vehicles were charged during off-peak hours at an average rate of $0.05/kWh, an average daily cost of $5. This is an estimated annual cost increase of approximately $15,000 in electricity costs per vehicle.

Maintenance costs are not yet known. There is only one maintenance manager, and the agency bought extended warranties of 12 years for each of the first three buses, which includes maintenance.

Best Practices & Lessons Learned

CHT continues to learn from the vehicles over time and expects charging infrastructure, range, and funding as challenges preventing a transition to a fully electric fleet as a means to achieve zero tailpipe emissions. Additionally, high demand and supply chain issues have resulted in 18-24 months from order placement to building the vehicle. To meet the schedule of the Capital Plan developed in 2019, vehicles must be ordered with a greater lead time.

The vehicles perform best when charged overnight for six to eight hours, and the current space at the transit facility cannot accommodate the expansion of charging infrastructure to accommodate an entire fleet, even if the range grows with new vehicles. The University of North Carolina generates power for the campus and medical center. Selling the power or giving it away for free is not allowed, which prevents adding campus charging stations. Leadership is considering new options, including park-and-ride lots, on-street charging (overhead or induction), and the need for redundancy in power supplies.  Additionally, as technology changes with chargers, policies and regulations may be outdated or require changes to install or adapt to the newest options.

Ultimately, Chapel Hill Transit has not experienced challenges that would prevent incorporating electric buses, administrative vehicles, or service vehicles into the agency. 

References

Presenter, Nick Pittman, Assistant Director Chapel Hill Transit. (2023, Oct. 26.) Chapel Hill Transit Public Transit Committee Meeting. Meeting conducted virtually. https://www.townofchapelhill.org/home/showpublisheddocument/54842/638336549833830000

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Chapel Hill Transit Fleet Story

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