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Electric buses are sitting unused in cities across the US; here's why

Many U.S. cities are grappling with broken-down electric transit vehicles that cannot be fixed, months after the largest E-bus manufacturer filed for bankruptcy.

Between the federal government, states and municipalities, untold billions in taxpayer dollars have been spent adding electric buses to transit fleets across the U.S. in an effort to reduce carbon emissions. 

However, cities from coast-to-coast are grappling with broken-down e-buses that cannot be fixed, are too expensive to fix, or they have scrapped their electric fleets altogether.

Officials in Asheville, North Carolina, recently expressed frustration that three of the five e-buses the city purchased for millions in 2018 are now sitting idle due to a combination of software issues, mechanical problems and an inability to obtain replacement parts.

Earlier this month, The Denver Gazette reported two of the four e-buses Colorado Springs' Mountain Metropolitan Transit acquired in 2021 are not running. They cost $1.2 million a piece, mostly paid for by government grants. 

Part of the problem is the manufacturer of the buses, Proterra, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in August. The company, founded in 2004, rose to become the largest e-bus company in the U.S., representing nearly 40% of the market prior to going belly-up.

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Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm sat on Proterra's board until she joined the Biden administration, and President Biden touted the company while taking a virtual tour of the manufacturer in the spring of 2021. Granholm made $1.6 million selling her stock in the company shortly after that, following criticisms that her holdings in the firm were a conflict of interest.

Asheville's interim transportation director, Jessica Morriss, told local outlet WLOS-TV it has been impossible to get parts since Proterra filed for bankruptcy last summer. However, Asheville – and several other cities – had problems with the company's buses long before then.

In 2020, The Philadelphia Tribune reported SEPTA's entire $24 million fleet of Proterras had been pulled out of commission. A spokesperson for the transit agency would not get into the specifics of why the 25 buses – the third-largest fleet of all-electric buses in the U.S. at the time – were put on ice, but suggested the issues might be covered under the manufacturer's warranty.

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Then in Sept. 2021, the Daily Bulletin out of California reported that "As of August, Foothill Transit, based in West Covina and serving the San Gabriel Valley, parts of Los Angeles and Pomona Valley, had 13 idled battery-electric buses out of 32 in its fleet. At one point, the agency indicated up to 67% of its electric buses were not operating during 2019 and 2020." 

The outlet noted San Joaquin Regional Transit District in Stockton, California, the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County in Reno, Nevada, and the Transit Authority of River City (TARC) in Louisville, Kentucky, were also struggling with Proterra buses sitting idle.

In Nov. 2022, WDRB-TV reported that TARC's entire fleet of Proterra electric buses had not operated in two years. The outlet said $9 million had been shelled out for Louisville's e-buses.

Last month, Austin, Texas-based KUT News reported the city's Capital Metro had entered into a $46 million deal with Proterra in 2020 for the company to build 40 buses. CapMetro only has six of them in operation while they await another 17 that have been built but are sitting in Proterra's South Carolina factory because chargers for them are not yet available. 

The outlet also pointed to a filing from attorneys representing Broward County, Florida, regarding Proterra's bankruptcy. The lawyers told the court Broward County purchased 42 buses from Proterra for $54 million, and the first batch only operated for an average of 600 miles before breaking down, while the second batch averaged 1,800. For comparison, the county's diesel buses average 4,500 between failures, the filing said.

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Some of the cities that have taken multimillion-dollar losses on inoperable e-buses, including Asheville and Colorado Springs, have paused purchasing more all-electric transit vehicles for now, and are instead opting for adding hybrid models to their green fleets until EV technology improves. 

In the meantime, Proterra is poised to make a comeback.

The company was split into three parts during bankruptcy and its transit bus division was purchased earlier this month by Phoenix Motorcars, a California-based manufacturer that primarily builds medium-duty electric vehicles like shuttle buses for airports.

Jose Paul, Phoenix Motorcars' chief revenue officer, told FOX Business in an interview that the company has taken ownership of "really world-class technology" in its acquisition of Proterra. 

He noted that EVs, like any new technology, have issues but are continuing to evolve and advance. When Henry Ford rolled out the Model T, it was not perfect, Paul pointed out, and says Proterra's buses have continued to improve with each generation.

Paul acknowledged that some customers, like the city of Asheville, have had challenges with operating Proterra buses, particularly due to the inability to obtain parts since the bankruptcy. He said one of the first things Phoenix Motorcars plans to do is to focus on restocking spare parts to make them available, explaining that some suppliers refused to sell to Proterra while it was under bankruptcy protection. 

Roughly 300 Proterra employees, some of whom have been with the company from its start, have agreed to stay on board with Phoenix. The new owner is currently working to identify what parts customers need and, if required, to provide service technicians to get inoperable vehicles fixed.

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"It's been eight days, and we've already made significant progress," Paul told FOX Business. "We can now go out there and start ramping up on all fronts, be it honoring…the backlog of orders which Proterra had…ramping up production. That's the immediate goal for us. So those are all things we're doing right now."

Paul said Phoenix's hope is that a lot of the issues customers have faced due to Proterra's bankruptcy will be handled within the next six to nine months.

He emphasized, "Our goal is to take care of customers…every single customer."

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