Upgrading to electric buses a necessity for Tech

Photo courtesy of David Alman

While the quality of Tech students and a Tech education has only risen in the past years, one aspect of Tech has remained relatively constant: the quality of its transportation system. With the exception of the Tech Square Express, which mostly benefits business students or those living in off-campus housing, the majority of the undergraduate population have seen no great increase in the quality of the transportation system, qualitatively or quantitatively, since their arrival on campus.

One deficiency is exceptionally wearing for many students, particularly those who walk next to or bike on the bus routes: pollution. Almost every student is familiar with the suffocating black cloud of smoke (pollution) that the buses emit as they accelerate. It is an eyesore, nose-sore and health hazard. With a campus that prides itself on being green and touts its LEED certifications, the transportation system is a black sheep.

The solution is simple: go electric. While many cite cost as a deterrent, I will cite competition as an incentive. In June of 2016, U(sic)GA was awarded a $10 million grant from the GO! Transit Capital Program to purchase 19 electric buses for its fleet. U(sic)GA provided another $5 million in matching funds. These buses are intended to replace the oldest of U(sic)GA’s diesel buses and will contribute to a cleaner and more appealing campus environment.  Just as America’s space program was pushed onwards by Soviet competition, so should Tech’s transportation modernization be pushed on by U(sic)GA’s. As an aerospace engineer and history nerd, I appreciate such things.

While the upfront cost of switching to electric vehicles is a deterrent, it pays for itself in the long-term. While not directly related to Tech, a New York University study on New York’s transportation system can provide insight into the savings. The study found that diesel buses typically cost $500,000, with electric buses coming in $300,000 higher at around $800,000. However, over the 12-year lifetime of the bus, a diesel bus will cost the operator $1.348 million while an electric bus will cost only $1.18 million. Over the lifetime of the operation, an electric bus will save the operator $168,000.

While it is likely that the numbers for Tech will be somewhat different, $168,000 over 12 years is a significant number and one that provides enough margin to justify looking into the idea. If one assumes that Tech operates 16 vehicles (assumption is 3 each for Red, Blue, Green, Trolley, and 2 each for Emory and Tech Square), then that works out to be a savings of $2.688 million over the lifetime of the system (12 years x 168,000 per year per bus x 16 buses). Per year, that works out to be a savings of $224,000 (enough to pay for at least two more full-time counselors in the counseling center, or assist in upgrades for the Student Center, Instructional Center or aerospace buildings).

Tech is ideally positioned to conduct such a study. According to the data that I was able to obtain, Tech’s current contract with Groome Transportation ends in 2020. A study started in the Spring of 2017 could make a decision on the future by Fall of 2018. This would provide nearly 2 years for development of a plan to go fully-electric. This could be done either in the form of only allowing bidding from electric bus companies or through the establishment of a Tech run and operated bus system, which would have the advantage of giving Civil Engineering and Public Policy students, among others, access to internships and work experience on a problem directly relevant to challenging real-world issues.

There is a final benefit to Tech switching to an electric bus system: marketing. The prospect of a totally green transportation system would add to Tech’s reputation as a progressive, technologically advanced institution.