Metro Denver’s transit agency pulled the trigger in late 2021 on what its leaders hoped would be the first of many moves to replace the more than 1,000 diesel buses on its regular routes with zero-emission vehicles.
But the Regional Transportation District’s leaders found themselves Tuesday in the awkward position of canceling an $18 million deal for 17 new electric-powered buses — even as they reaffirmed their goal of converting the entire fleet in coming decades.
The reason: RTD’s maintenance and operations facilities lacked enough space to charge, maintain and store those new buses and their specialized equipment. That was something discovered after the contract was signed with New America Flyer, said Debra Johnson, RTD’s general manager and CEO.
Agency officials estimated it would cost roughly $85 million to construct a new building at one of its maintenance facilities, one that would hardly accommodate RTD’s future needs as it buys more electric buses beyond this order. RTD has used 36 electric buses on the Free MallRide downtown since 2017, but the logistics for that are simpler than what’s expected for the use of electric buses on RTD’s regular fixed routes.
Johnson called the contract termination, which was approved 13-0 by the agency’s board Tuesday night, “a course correction as RTD forges a path toward zero emissions.”
Some board members hinted at embarrassment at the unusual backtrack on an issue that’s long been an agency priority. But they also pressed forward by unanimously approving a new zero-emission policy that sets a target of 2050 for RTD to “achieve net-zero emissions” in terms of how vehicles are powered and how that power is generated.
Separately, the board voted 12-1 to authorize Johnson to solicit and hire a consultant to help the agency draft a “holistic low/no emission facilities and fleet transition plan.” The board approved a cap of $10 million for a contract, with a plan due in the final quarter of 2024.
Essentially, that plan will set out RTD’s strategy by figuring out what it will need to support new types of buses before it buys them — from maintenance shop space and staffing needs to power supply sources and the feasibility of different types of bus technology for its route map. The plan also will comply with new federal grant-funding requirements for agencies to have a transition plan.
Director Doug Tisdale dissented from that vote, citing concerns about the cost and how much is being revealed upfront to firms that might bid.
While he was bullish on the future-looking initiatives, Director Vince Buzek expressed disappointment about the contract cancellation — and about the fact that “the facilities and infrastructure assessment was not completed prior to the ordering of these buses. … As a result now, we’re going to be at a financial loss.”
RTD spokeswoman Mart Sipeki said the cost to terminate the contract hasn’t been determined yet, but it will cover work New Flyer has performed for RTD so far. The contract has been suspended since October.
The canceled bus contract was struck after the RTD board gave the green light in November 2021 to spend up to $18 million on 17 new battery-electric buses, equipment and other costs. New board documents show the funding sources, which Johnson said would now cover the transition plan, included a $2.6 million federal grant, $8.6 million from the state’s Volkswagen emission scandal settlement fund and $8.7 million in RTD funds. Those totaled $19.9 million, exceeding New Flyer’s eventual contract cost.
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