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Members of the Des Moines Symphony Low Brass take a ride on the DART D-Line for a performance for the Side Sessions music project. The performance coincides with the release of the Des Moines Symphony’s 80th anniversary season, “Music in Motion.”

Iowa’s first electric buses, a zero-emissions alternative to the current diesel-powered fleet, will debut in the Des Moines metro later this year.

The Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority, the state’s largest public transit agency which serves 12 metro cities and Polk County, unveiled seven brand new battery-powered buses Thursday during an event that was live-streamed on Facebook.

Paid for largely by grants from the Federal Transit Administration and MidAmerican Energy, the buses are the first of their kind in Iowa, according to Erin Hockman, DART chief external affairs officer. 

Electric buses and other battery-powered vehicles are gaining popularity nationwide as more cities adopt sustainability goals including lowering greenhouse gas emissions — the most significant driver of climate change, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

On a yearly basis, an average diesel bus can produce 230,000 pounds of carbon dioxide, according to electric vehicle manufacturer Proterra. 

In addition to the environmental benefits, the buses could help DART’s bottom line. The electric buses ($863,000 per bus) are more expensive than their diesel counterparts ($494,000 per bus) — but generally are much cheaper to maintain and fuel.

Proterra says the electric option brings a 78% reduction in fuel costs and 18% reduction in total ownership costs.

Before DART makes any long-term decisions, the agency will evaluate those costs, as well as how they perform in Iowa’s distinct seasons. Some cities have reported that battery-powered buses struggle in cold temperatures and snow, which could dampen prospects for Iowa. The pilot program will last for at least a year, Hockman said.

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DART’s electric buses can travel an estimated 150 miles daily before needing to plug in and recharge. Passengers will be able to charge their devices on the buses thanks to USB ports at every seat, a news release said. 

Drivers are currently being trained to operate the new buses. They will soon be incorporated into DART’s Route 60, which loops Ingersoll and University avenues. Some will likely join suburban routes as well, Hockman said.

The $7.1 million pilot program is made possible by a combination of public and private dollars. Three-quarters of the funding comes from federal grants, including $1.45 million from the Federal Transit Administration. Additionally, DART and the city of Des Moines together contributed $900,000, and MidAmerican Energy Co. gave roughly $800,000.

“Not only are we excited to offer cleaner transportation to Greater Des Moines, we are excited about the potential for these electric buses to save DART money in operating and maintenance costs,” said DART CEO Elizabeth Presutti in a statement. “This historical first for the state of Iowa and DART was put in motion by the support of MidAmerican, and for that we will always be grateful.” 

Shelby Fleig covers Des Moines city government for the Register. Reach her at shelbyfleig@dmreg.com or 515-214-8933.

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