The Illinois-based Rock Island County Metropolitan Mass Transit District (MetroLINK) provides bus, ADA paratransit, and special transportation services to the Quad Cities area, which includes East Moline, Carbon Cliff, Colona, Hampton, Milan, Moline, Rock Island, and Silvis.
Averaging 3.3 million rides a year, the agency provides vital connections to jobs, education, healthcare, and retail, and also operates a seasonal ferryboat operation, called the Channel Cat. Being that the area it serves is different than most regions, MetroLINK has challenges that may be unique to its operations.
“The Quad Cities has a population of about 350,000 people — half in Illinois and half in Iowa,” explains MetroLINK’s GM Jeff Nelson. “In Iowa, transit service is run by the public works department and on the Illinois side we’re a metro authority, so one of the biggest issues we have is trying to develop seamless trips across the various systems.”
To help improve the service, the agencies have turned to technology, including Google Transit and a mobile app provided by TransLoc.
“On the governing side, we’re three separate agencies that work well as a collective,” Nelson explains. “Now, through technology, we’re hoping the experience will be more seamless for the rider as well.”
Although it’s a smaller transit agency, MetroLINK has been a sustainability pioneer for many years. In fact, the agency is currently down to seven diesel buses in its fleet with plans to replace those vehicles with greener options when it is time.
Nelson explains MetroLINK began first with clean diesel, and then moved on to testing biofuels, before adding its first CNG-propelled vehicles in the early 2000s.
“Many of our earlier decisions were driven by having a board that was not only focused on ecology but also the visual elements associated with the exhaust coming out of the vehicles,” Nelson says of the agency’s alternative-fuel usage, explaining that the exploration began in the early 1990s, when the agency built a new transit hub transfer center.
“It had two levels of parking above it and the board really wanted to focus on how to keep the ceiling clean for the long term,” he says.
More importantly, though, MetroLINK has continued its sustainable practices over the years because it sees itself as a leader in the communities it serves.
“In a community like ours, where we have probably 16 contiguous cities, it’s hard to have one group take a strong sustainable footprint that has a cross-border impact like transit does,” Nelson says.
Responding to the growing challenge from political and board leaders to be more sustainable, MetroLINK began exploring the usage of electric buses a few years back.
“We built a new maintenance facility five years ago, and as part of that new facility we had a photovoltaic roof and a solar hot water system, as well as other sustainability elements associated with construction on the project,” Nelson says. “At that time, the Mayor’s Consortium challenged us to embrace what the next technology might look like.”
Initially, Nelson says MetroLINK was going to use some federal and state monies to begin exploring diesel hybrid-electric vehicles, but when the incoming governor took office, capital investments throughout the state’s transit agencies were put on hold. Once those dollars were finally made available, Nelson says the timing coincided with the rise of battery-electric vehicles showing up on the market, particularly the release of Proterra’s extended-range Catalyst E2, which it added three of in the spring of 2018.
The electric journey
To properly test the electric buses, MetroLINK decided to put the vehicles on a dedicated route so it could gather solid analytics. The route selected covered two rivers, as well as the bluffs and valleys that come from such geography.
“We had a nice little snap of everything, from a 45-mile-an-hour piece from the mall to the airport, to our hills and valleys and everything in between,” says Nelson. “So the route really gave us an opportunity to test the vehicle in many different types of applications.”
In addition to the unique route profile, Nelson says the climate in the Quad Cities region also gives the agency the chance to test the vehicles in both extreme heat and cold. He adds the agency plans on continuing to test the buses over a two-year span to gather the necessary data to prove if usage of the battery-electric technology is successful, however, initial feedback has been positive.
“When you step into a new technology, you have some base expectations that they’ll be successful,” says Nelson. “Right now, I can honestly say the buses have both surprised us and exceeded our expectations since we rolled them out.”
To better leverage its investment in the new technology, MetroLINK took advantage of Proterra’s battery leasing program for the five vehicles it added in May, which allows transportation operations to lower the upfront costs of zero-emission buses and essentially put the cost of Proterra’s battery-electric vehicles on par with the price of a diesel bus.
Nelson says the decision to enter into a six-year lease for the batteries stemmed not only from the quick evolution of the technology, but also because it gave the agency the opportunity to boost its cash flow while also transferring risk.
“We have no reason not to believe the paper projections, but I think it’s a Midwest thing to only believe it when you see it, so the risk transfer piece is probably the most appealing aspect of leasing the batteries,” he explains. “It really gives us piece of mind that if the battery-life projections are off for some reason, they will be replaced in what we believe will be a simple process.”
Dealing with a finite amount of space in its garage, which houses its bus fleet year-round, MetroLINK developed an innovative solution to deploy the latest depot-charging equipment while maximizing safety and efficiently utilizing existing bus storage space. While most agencies wall-mount or pedestal-mount their chargers, MetroLINK worked with a local engineering and electrical firm to design and install a ceiling-mounted system. The idea came to agency officials after visiting a John Deere plant in the area.
“We noticed that, like us, they were limited for space, so they began utilizing the overhead area for its robotic welders and power systems,” says Nelson. “After that visit, we asked Proterra if there was any reason the chargers couldn’t go in the ceiling and they said no, so we moved forward with designing how that would look.”
The result is an overhead system that utilizes a high-speed winch to bring the charging cord down from above, where it can charge up to three buses simultaneously, enabling the agency to bring the power to the bus, rather than the bus to the power source.
“It eliminates the chance of crashing into something because it’s so tight in the garage, and also helps reduce labor costs because you don’t have to have somebody shuttling the buses back and forth,” Nelson says.
Microtransit for milan
Continuing to innovate, MetroLINK recently launched a new microtransit service for the village of Milan, which enables riders to schedule trips using a mobile app, similarly to ride-hailing services like Lyft and Uber.
The service is designed to accommodate neighborhood trips, and supplement fixed-route service provided to Milan. Connections to fixed-route will be available along scheduled routes, with primary connections points at a grocery store and a post office for riders wishing to continue their trip outside the village.
“Milan is sort of at the end of the line for our system and it has traditionally been hard for people to use public transit to actually stay in Milan,” says Nelson. “So we thought if microtransit was to work for us, Milan would be the perfect case study.”
The program was implemented through a partnership with TransLoc, which provides the mobile app and data for the agency’s drivers.
“We looked at dial-a-ride expansion or some type of other call-in service for the region, but then we were able to make use of the TransLoc app, which really reduced our cost model because it reduced the overhead typically associated with call centers and scheduling,” says Nelson.
He adds the service has been a success so far, because it enables the people of Milan to travel with more spontaneity and has cut down on the number of no-shows typically associated with other scheduled services.
“We’re running at almost 99 percent of our trips showing up, where with traditional methods we’d be lucky to hit 80 percent,” says Nelson.
He adds the agency is continuing to explore other ways to increase mobility options in the area, including a possible late-night service that would be developed in response to the areas growing service economy.
Nelson explains that when taking on future mobility projects or exploring technologies like battery-electric buses, it’s important to not only accept levels of risk in your decision-making but also to engage the community and employees to explore new ways to deliver service.
“It’s all about getting the creative footprint flowing,” he says. “I think it’s pleasing to see that we have a culture where people are always looking for innovative ways to improve the quality of the services we deliver.”