SEPTA grant greenlights electric bus pilot

Two South Philly bus routes are about to get much cleaner and greener. With an approximately $2.5 Federal Transit Administration (FTA) grant, announced April 19, SEPTA will begin the process of piloting an electric bus program using Routes 29 and 79 as a laboratory. They’re short, flat routes – perfect for implementing electric buses and monitoring their effectiveness.

“SEPTA was one of seven agencies selected by the FTA to participate in the LoNo grant program. It’s a very very competitive program,” Richard Burnfield, SEPTA’s deputy general manager, boasted.

LoNo is short for the Low or No Emission Funding Program, one Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey was thrilled to facilitate for funding.

“SEPTA is a critical component of not only Philadelphia’s economy, but the entire Southeast region of Philadelphia,” Casey wrote to SPR. “This grant will allow SEPTA to address important safety concerns and improve the efficiency of its operations.”

The buses are 77-passenger and 40-foot Proterra Catalysts that run on lithium battery power, and SEPTA is poised to purchase as many as 25. They retail for $650,000 to $750,000 and, according to SEPTA’s director of business innovation, Erik Johanson, that’s an indication of a vast improvement in electric technology over the last five years.

“We’re testing a brand new technology,” Johanson said. “Acceleration rates, battery life, maintenance questions, the integration of the infrastructure into the fleet… [it’s] a whole new technology in our operation.”

There will likely be a main charging station at SEPTA’s southern center at 20th and Johnston streets, as well as a couple others along the routes.

“It’s something that we’re monitoring, but it’s something that has emerged rapidly over the last three to five years,” Johanson added. “All the research and development is benefiting the industry by driving down the cost of batteries. The technology will only become more viable both environmentally and economically.”

Burnfield says there are nearly 1,400 regular buses in SEPTA’s possession and that they buy approximately 100 buses every year. Routes 29 and 79 were formerly hybrid buses that operated with trolley technology – wires strung above the street that provide power to combustion-free buses. In a comparison report, electric buses proved more expensive as an upfront investment, but one that pays off over time.

“The battery electric bus would provide significant lifecycle savings over the total life of the bus and cover the upfront costs,” Johanson explained.

The grant dollars, Burnfield says, “will be used to pay for the additional costs for an electric bus compared to a hybrid bus, the type of bus that we acquire now. It’s about $100,000 in additional costs and with 25 buses at $100,000 per bus,” the grant covers the difference.

The only question of environmental friendliness, Johanson said, is how they source the electricity. “There’s no internal combustion engine, so locally there’s no emissions associated with the vehicle, just like a trolley or a trackless trolley,” he said.

The buses won’t be likely to hit streets until next summer, but Johanson said, eventually, both routes will be exclusively served by electric buses.

“We’ve bought enough buses to cover fleet requirements, so those routes will be entirely electric, entirely battery,” he explained.

“They’re good fits for a pilot for electric buses,” Burnfield stated. “[The routes] are short and flat, they’re not going up hills to Manayunk. They’ll fit nicely for being able to evaluate the electric bus technology here at SEPTA. This gives us an opportunity to test them out for a couple years before we would make a decision as to if we would want to expand that part of our overall bus fleet.”

Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at or ext. 117.

Brand new lithium battery-powered buses will be purchased by SEPTA with an important grant and South Philly bus routes will be the testing ground for this new technology.

Photos Provided by Proterra