You probably won't hear these buses coming. If they show up as expected on the Howard Transit Green Route in the spring of 2015, they'll be the first of their kind in Maryland to run a municipal loop. They will likely be greeted with fanfare, even if they won't make much noise themselves — since they'll run entirely on electricity.
"They're very quiet," said John Powell, administrator for the county's Office of Transportation. "One of the interesting aspects of the electric buses is you hear everything else" but the engine. He said the bus engine will be quieter even than those in the hybrid electric-diesel vehicles now in service.
The county is waiting to hear from a small number of American companies expected to submit bids by Aug. 23 to build three buses and one charging station expected to go into service in April 2015. A contract is expected to be awarded in November.
Working with a $2.7 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration, the county plans to start by adding the three all-electric buses to its fleet of 50 hybrid electric-diesel buses and smaller vehicles that transport elderly and disabled people. If the buses work as hoped, Powell said the county would expect to eventually add more, but he cautioned that such a transition would be "an expensive process."
Costs won't be clear until the bids are in, but Powell said the county has allocated $250,000 for the charging station that would be built at The Mall in Columbia and $800,000 per bus. That's about twice the price of the hybrid buses the county uses now, and more than twice the cost of a conventional diesel-engine model.
Part of the county's efforts to encourage green construction and fuel efficiency, the buses are planned for the Green Route, one of nine Howard Transit lines. The 10.4-mile circuit serves The Mall in Columbia, Wilde Lake, Howard Community College and Howard County General Hospital.
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Powell and Terry Owens, a spokesman for the Maryland Transit Administration, said they know of no other county, city or town in Maryland that now runs all-electric buses or is planning to do so, meaning that if these roll out on time in the spring of 2015, they would likely be the first in the state.
"It's a very exciting project," Owens said, adding that these would be among the first in the country to use an "inductive" charging system, which allows buses to recharge without being plugged into an electrical connection. The system works more like an electric toothbrush recharger, Powell said, allowing buses to recharge while waiting at a stop on breaks between route runs by being in close proximity to the power source.
All-electric buses have been running since the early 1990s in at least two American cities: Chattanooga, Tenn., and Santa Barbara, Calif., said Powell, who used to head what he calls an electric-vehicle "think tank," the Advanced Transportation Technology Institute in Chattanooga. Since last spring, he has headed the county's new transportation office.
The buses will be equipped with about 35 seats and will accommodate as many as 50 passengers, including those standing. They'll present a more sleek profile than a conventional bus, Powell said, with a more rounded front end.
The buses will recharge between route runs and overnight, for six to eight hours a day, and should last as long in the fleet as conventional buses, if not longer, he said.
Fewer moving parts means less wear, fewer repairs and, of course, much less noise.