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Electric buses arriving soon in Duluth

A charging station for the new electric busses that are coming to the Duluth Transit Authority. (Clint Austin /caustin@duluthnews.com)

The Duluth Transit Authority's Jim Caywood spent last week in Greenville, S.C., where he was the first person locally to set eyes on the electric buses coming to Duluth this summer.

"The first bus will be here about the second week of June," said Caywood, the DTA's director of maintenance. "It's just about done."

The order of a half-dozen fully electric buses will roll out one at a time over the course of the summer. Each one will arrive on a flatbed truck. Once the first one gets here, there will be extensive training with the drivers and maintenance staff. Additionally, the Duluth police and fire departments and emergency medical responders will be familiarized with the buses, said new DTA General Manager Phil Pumphrey, who explained the need for emergency crews to understand the buses.

"It's a high-voltage vehicle," Pumphrey said.

Because of the training necessary, the buses likely won't be put into use until several weeks after the arrival of the first one. They will be added to the DTA's roster of roughly 70 buses — currently a mix of diesel and hybrid diesel-electric vehicles.

The DTA was awarded a grant worth $6.3 million from the Federal Transit Administration in 2015 to receive six buses. Part of the goal of the grant was to see how electric buses would fare in a city with cold temperatures and lots of hills.

Caywood and others with the DTA have been involved in the design features, working with the manufacturer, Proterra, to add things such as an auxiliary heating system so that the cabin stays warm in winter. The DTA even endured a one-year delay in the buses' arrival after deciding to go with a slower-charging model versus a fast-charging one.

This spring, charging depots made to look like regular fuel pumps were added inside the DTA garage in Lincoln Park.

Caywood shared a picture on his phone of the DTA's first bus. It's sleek and all white, with none of the striping or marketing wraps which will be adhered prior to unveiling.

Already, the University of Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota Power have signed on to be featured on two of the six buses. Other deals are in the works, Caywood said.

The buses are nearly silent and Caywood explained that part of training will be to teach drivers a system of subtle honks necessary to alert unsuspecting pedestrians and other drivers to the presence of an electric bus.

"Our first priority is safety," Pumphrey said.

Unlike the current roster of buses which feature heavy exhaust systems packed onto the backs of the buses, the new electric models feature no such interference.

Said Caywood, "Drivers are going to get used to looking out the rear window again."

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