Future of new electric bus purchases in CT unclear as Sen. Somers calls for moratorium following fire

August 22, 2022

Future of new electric bus purchases in CT unclear as Sen. Somers calls for moratorium following fire


CT Post

Connecticut transportation officials have yet to make any decisions on whether to purchase additional electric buses following a fire that destroyed one of CTtransit’s bus last month, which officials say was the first of its kind involving a battery-powered bus in Connecticut.

Meanwhile, some Republicans are pointing to the incident to call for a moratorium on the state’s plans to transition away from its existing fleet of diesel buses.

The exact cause of the fire — which completely engulfed the off-duty bus, sending two transit workers to the hospital for smoke inhalation — remains under investigation by both state and federal authorities, with a preliminary report likely to be released in the coming weeks.
The state Department of Transportation has pulled the other 11 electric buses in its fleet from service.

The incident came as the agency had begun accelerating its transition to a carbon-free fleet, prompted by a new law prohibiting the state from purchasing new diesel buses beginning in 2024.

Last week, Gov. Ned Lamont heralded the receipt of a new, $20.4 million federal grant for the DOT to modernize its southeastern region transit hub in Preston, including the purchase of new buses. A press release announcing the grant did not mention the recent fire, or whether the state would use the federal funds to purchase electric buses or new diesel buses ahead of the Jan. 1 deadline.

“We haven’t made any decision of future procurements at this time,” DOT spokeswoman Kafi Rouse said Friday. Rouse said the July 23 fire was an “isolated incident,” adding that it has not impacted on the department’s plans to transition to a carbon-free fleet. The state has not purchased new buses of any kind since the fire, she added. While experts say that electric vehicles are not at a greater risk of catching fire than other, gasoline-and-diesel-burning vehicles, the difficulty of extinguishing flames within their shelled lithium-ion battery packs has prompted some additional concerns, particularly among fire fighters.

A spokesperson for National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the Hamden fire along with State Police, said the agency has not previously investigated any similar incidents involving that particular bus model, which was manufactured by New Flyer.

The agency is expected to release its preliminary report within several weeks, the spokesperson said, followed by a full report determining probable cause and any contributing factors within one to two years.

In seperate statements, New Flyer and the bus’ battery manufacturer, XALT Energy, said they were cooperating with investigators to determine the nature of the fire.

“We are grateful for the swift action of the depot employees and the fire crews,” Indira Sadikovic, a spokeswoman for XALT said in an email. “As we gain more insight, we will provide more details about this incident.”

After largely opposing the passage of Connecticut Clean Air Act — also known as SB4 — during this year’s legislative session, Republicans this week accused Democratic lawmakers of rushing to electrify the state’s fleet without accounting for hiccups in the technology. The bill requires that one-third of transit buses and nearly all of the state’s fleet of cars and light-duty trucks run on zero-emission engines by 2030.

In a letter sent to the chairs of the Transportation Committee on Monday, state Rep. Devin Carney, R- Old Lyme, and Sen. Heather Somers, R- Groton, requested that the committee hold a public hearing looking into the fire and investigation.

The two lawmakers are the top-ranking Republicans on the Transportation Committee.

Carney told Hearst Connecticut Media Friday that DOT should halt all further purchases of electric buses until the investigation is concluded and lawmakers have a chance to question the investigators about their findings.

In addition to its initial purchase of 12 buses last year, transportation officials announced a plan to order an additional 22 buses in March at a cost of $25.7 million, aided in part by another federal grant.

That order had not been finalized as of Friday, which Rouse attributed to a decision made prior to the fire.

“These are very expensive taxpayer-funded buses,” Carney said. “We need to ensure that they’re safe for people to use… There’s a great concern of, ‘What if this happened while people were on it? We don’t want a tragedy like that happening.”

Transportation Committee co-chair Sen. Will Haskell, D- Westport, responded to this letter this week, saying that while the committee was already planning to hold public meetings on a variety of topics this fall, he was not sure that the investigation into the bus fire warranted a stand-alone hearing.

Asked whether the DOT should continue purchasing electric buses or return its existing fleet to service prior to the conclusion of the investigation, Haskell said he trusted transportation officials to make that call.

“Fortunately, this appears to be an isolated and exceedingly rare incident,” Haskell said in a text message. “Across the country, electric buses have proven to be a critical tool to reduce emissions and fight climate change. That said, the Department of Transportation is taking the fire very seriously… In my view, it would be premature to insert politics into the discussion before those investigations are complete.

Carney said on Friday that he trusted both state and federal investigators to get to the bottom of the fire, but that lawmakers should have the opportunity to review those findings before DOT can move forward with its electrification plans.

“The legislature is the body that pushed forward SB4 without taking any of this into account, “ Carney said. “So if the legislature thinks it knows what’s best for transportation policy then we should be at the forefront of understanding what happened.”

Meanwhile, fire officials say that they are also developing a new understanding of electrical vehicle fires and how to extinguish them as a result of the incident in Hamden.

According to the Office of the State Fire Marshal, no other blazes involving electrical vehicles have been reported in Connecticut through the National Fire Incident Reporting System in the past five years.