Bus from the Summit Stage Public Transit network. (Source: Summit Stage Facebook)

The move to clean up emissions on public transit vehicles isn’t just an urban phenomenon. Some rural transit agencies across the country are also taking advantage of federal infrastructure dollars to replace their aging buses with new electric ones.

Funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act will provide billions of dollars to transportation departments and transit agencies over the next five years. 

The “Low or No-Emission Vehicle Program” and “Bus and Bus Facilities Grants” will help some rural transit agencies replace or expand their offerings.

Over the next five years, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will provide more than $5.5 billion for “Low- or No-Emission Vehicle Program” grants to state and local governments for the purchase or lease of zero-emission and low-emission transit buses and supporting facilities.  

For instance, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) will receive $3.4 million in federal grants for six electric buses to be deployed in four rural transit systems – two buses for Heartland Express/Brown County Human Services; one bus for SMART/Cedar Valley Services, Inc., for the Owatonna service; one bus for the Fairmont service in the Prairie Lakes Transit/Faribault-Martin County Transit Board; and two buses in St. Peter and Le Sueur service of the Minnesota River Valley Transit.

The MnDOT said in an email interview that combined the six buses being replaced travel approximately 173,300 miles per year, consuming 30,500 gallons of fuel.

“Deploying battery electric buses in place of fossil fuel vehicles will reduce energy consumption and harmful emissions, including greenhouse gasses and particulates,” said Amber Dallman, MnDOT’s Transit Programs and Implementation assistant director in an email interview. “Public transit is an important part of our transportation system. Many people in rural areas rely on transit to access jobs, shopping and healthcare. This project helps us make service improvements while working to reduce emissions.”

But more than that, said Pat LaCourse, transit manager for Heartland Express/Brown County Human Services, in an interview with the Daily Yonder, the buses will provide rural residents with access to grocery stores, doctor appointments and jobs.

Brown County’s transit operations currently provide transit through a system where riders have to schedule service a day in advance. The two electric buses would replace two of the existing buses, with one of the buses turning into a fixed route through New Ulm, a city of about 14,000 residents located in Brown County in south-central Minnesota.

“We haven’t started the new route yet, but there’s a lot of excitement,” LaCourse said. “We did about 50,000 to 60,000 rides per month pre-pandemic, and that’s in a county the size of about 26,000 people. We weren’t able to offer same day rides because of the busyness of our buses. So people are pretty excited to have this.”

The infrastructure for the new buses is expected to be in place in 2024, he said, with the buses arriving in 2025.

In Kentucky, seven rural transit agencies will receive $3.2 million for 50 buses and vans, or supporting software, facilities and systems. That includes more than $222,000 for eight low-floor minivans to serve the people in the Eastern Kentucky counties of Clay, Jackson, Lee, Owsley, and Wolfe. Another $154,000 will provide two rear-loading vans and another cutaway van for Harlan County.

“A strong, rural transportation network is critical for economic growth in Kentucky,” Governor Andy Beshear said in a statement. “These grants will go a long way toward replacing an aging fleet of buses with new vehicles and to enhance transit services in areas that need reliable transportation.”

In Summit County, Colorado, population 30,735, Summit Stage public transit will get nearly $35 million in federal grants to build an electrified bus operations center. The grant – the largest the county has ever received – will pay for the majority of the facility and allow Summit Stage to expand its free services to Park and Lake counties, from which residents commute to work at resorts on I-70.

County officials said the grant helps them work toward the county’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emission by 25% by 2030, and 91% by 2050. The funding also frees up capital for other county projects like affordable housing, Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue told the Colorado Sun.

“It gets to a lot of our goals from a climate change perspective, from an equity perspective, and really just making sure that we can meet the needs of our community,” Pogue said. “We have to have vehicles and we also have to have staff, and like every other mountain community, we certainly are struggling to find staff right now. And so providing an environment in which they can do their jobs is certainly part of the equation.”

In Iowa, four rural transit agencies will split more than $13 million, a spokesperson from the agency said in an email interview. Heart of Iowa Regional Transit Agency will get $10.6 million for 5 zero-emission replacement buses, a facility, and seven Level 2 chargers. Southwest Iowa Transit Agency will use its $749,800 to acquire two zero-emission replacement buses, 5 Level 2 chargers and one bus expansion. Southeast Iowa Bus will use its $475,400 for two zero-emission replacement buses, one bus expansion and three chargers. And Southern Iowa Trolley will receive $1.6 million for a new bus facility.

Washington, Alaska and Florida are among the other states allocating funding to rural transit for zero-emission vehicles and bus facilities.

"When a transit door opens, whether it is a bus, train, or ferry, it is a great equalizer for everyone in our nation," said FTA Administrator Nuria Fernandez in a statement. "These investments also help us meet our goals of cutting transportation emissions, creating good-paying American manufacturing jobs, and helping America's transit workers prepare for new vehicle technology."

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.