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Breakthrough funding brings zero-emission buses to Chapel Hill Transit


Two Chapel Hill Transit buses, the D bus and NS bus, drive up South Columbia Street on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020.

U.S. Rep. David Price announced in early August that Chapel Hill Transit will receive $5.6 million as part of a federal grant for the purchase of zero-emission buses and other related transit network developments.

According to a press release, Price, who serves as chairperson of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development subcommittee, approved the Town’s application for an increase in annual funding in support of Chapel Hill Transit.

"Chapel Hill Transit is a national leader when it comes to affordable, dependable public transportation that ensures people can conveniently connect to jobs, health care and educational opportunities,” Price said in the press release.

The $5.6 million, allocated by the Federal Transit Administration, will generate considerable expansion to the bus fleet — adding 10 zero-emission buses — helping reduce the transit network’s vehicle emissions.

However, Brian Litchfield, transit director for Chapel Hill, said over email the suspected timeline for these changes will not begin before the end of 2020. He said three zero-emission buses will be delivered in May of 2021.

“These buses will replace existing diesel buses, and we will test them throughout the system to see how they perform,” Litchfield said. 

He said the new buses will take over existing routes as part of Chapel Hill Transit’s coverage area.

Michael Parker, a Chapel Hill Town Council member, approves of the move because he thinks the new buses will help reduce the ecological footprint of Chapel Hill.

Parker said he believes that testing and exploring these vehicles within Chapel Hill is the beginning of a longer process for the transit system to evolve into a highly sustainable one. 

Litchfield said an additional seven battery-powered buses will follow the three buses delivered in May 2021, funded by the most recent federal grant and the Volkswagen Settlement Fund. North Carolina received funds as part of Volkswagen's settlement after the company was found manipulating emissions tests results. 

Parker said he is hopeful for long-term change brought by the combined federal funding and settlement pay-out from Volkswagen. He said he anticipates the funds will help propel plans forward to fully electrify Chapel Hill Transit’s fleet over the next several years.

But he said development toward fully electric bus operations presents a couple challenges, including making sure the buses perform well, and continued funding will be needed to make Chapel Hill Transit's fleet fully electric.

“10 buses out of a total of about 90 buses that we currently operate isn’t in and of itself going to make a huge difference in the total emissions for our town," he said. "I think that our goal is to get electric buses, test them, make sure that they work for Chapel Hill in a number of different ways. If they do, then really over a period of years, depending on resources, (we'll) electrify our whole fleet.”


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Salim Fayeq

Salim Fayeq is City & State reporter for The Daily Tar Heel.

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