Rochester expects to have its first electric buses by the end of the year.

The Rochester City Council voted 5-2 this week to approve a contract that could cost nearly $6.9 million for up to four 60-foot electric buses.

“Our proposal is just to purchase two and see where our retained earnings are,” Rochester Public Works Director Wendy Turri said.

City Physical Development Manager Ia Xiong said replacing 40-foot buses with the larger versions to serve the city’s park-and-ride lots during peak periods is expected to provide long-term savings.

“The extra capacity will allow us to carry more passengers and improve efficiency, and we will have the opportunity to recharge the batteries if needed between the morning and afternoon peak periods,” she said.

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The investment in renewable fuels and sustainable transit is funded largely through federal grants.

The Federal Transit Administration awarded the city two grants, totalling $5.44 million, under the Low- or No-Emission Bus Program to help pay for the 60-foot, battery electric buses and related charging equipment.

The city will contribute nearly $885,000 for the first two buses and initial charging equipment, with funds coming from Rochester Public Transit’s operating fund balance.

If the third and fourth buses are purchased, the city’s share will be approximately $1 million under the contract with New Flyer North America.

Council member Shaun Palmer raised concerns about taking on the battery-powered electric buses.

“It’s my understanding that electric buses in Duluth and the (Twin) Cities have not worked and they are planning to use diesel (fuel) for heaters in them,” he said.

Xiong said the buses Rochester is purchasing are improved models with longer battery life. Additionally, the planned routes won’t be as challenging as the hills in Duluth.

She also noted the 13-mile routes in Rochester will be shorter than those used in the metro area.

“These buses are well-suited for RPT’s express park-and-ride service,” she said.

Rochester Mayor Kim Norton, a long-time supporter of electric vehicles, said she Duluth officials told her that they will maintain the city’s electric bus fleet, but some tweaks to the system are being made.

Council member Mark Bransford, who joined Palmer in opposing the bus contract, said his concern was cost.

“We are in a budget crunch, and this kind of feels like a new iPhone that we want to get,” he said. “I know long term it might save us some money, but I don't know how much we need these right now, given the price tag.”

Council member Nick Campion said bus prices are always shocking, but the options have been well evaluated.

“I don’t see anything out of line here with our costs, and also this is funded from the transit-retained earnings, so it’s the system affording itself through the repayment of fees,” he said of the local expense needed to access the grant funds.

Rochester Public Transit intends to place an order for the first two vehicles and charging equipment this spring, with delivery expected in late fall. The move follows several years of discussions and test rides in electric buses.

“This purchase is a big step towards a future in which renewable fuels will play a bigger role in public transit in Rochester,” Norton said. “I signed the Mayor’s Sustainability Pledge because I understand that decisions like this one can make a substantial positive impact on our environment and the future of our planet.”