Thursday, May 23, 2024

Link Transit charts future with electric buses and innovative services

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CHELAN – Nick Covey, CEO of Link Transit, addressed the regular bi-monthly meeting of the Chelan city council on Feb. 27 with a presentation that included everything short of driving an electric bus through the council chamber doors.

Covey began with some background details.

  • First day of service was Dec 16, 1991. 
  • 13-member Board of Directors and 188 employees, give or take. Councilmember and former mayor Bob Goedde served on the Link board for 19 years, a position now filled by Mayor Erin McCardle.
  • Service Area of 3,660 square miles covering all of Chelan County and one-third of Douglas.
  • Largest public transit service area in the state.
  • Serves a population 128,000, seven days a week and travels 2.4 million miles annually.
  • More than one million boardings for the first time since 2015.

Link has service options to cover every commuter need.

  • Fixed route involves the big busses seen driving through town daily.
  • DART is same-day Dial-A-Ride service in Chelan and Wenatchee. Riders can use a phone app or call in for same-day service. Additional DART is planned for Chelan Falls and Apple Acres/Airport (2025).
  • LinkPlus is a complementary paratransit service for the fixed route that provides door-to-door service for ADA-qualified users.
  • TripLink is a new service for those out-of-service-area users without personal vehicles. They can have friend or neighbor transport them and Link will reimburse mileage costs for a limited number of monthly trips.
  • Rideshare is a monthly fee service for three or more riders via a provided Link van. For example, workers from Wenatchee going to Grand Coulee or Wells dams find Rideshare a good fit.

The Link fleet provides a variety of vehicles, and all are ADA-compliant.

  • 23 battery-electric BYD-manufactured buses with nine more arriving spring 2025. Link contracted with BYD largely for the beneficial battery arrangement. 

“Batteries usually last about half the life of the vehicle,” said Covey. “The big busses are 12-year, 500,000-mile vehicles. BYD warranties their batteries for 12 years. If something goes wrong, they replace them for us,”

Covey explained the benefit of not having to replace batteries that can cost half the price of a bus. BYD also buys the used batteries back from Link, eliminating the need for battery disposal.

  • Twelve 40-foot Gillig-manufactured (diesel) busses that travel about 600 miles daily, a distance not yet capable for electric models.
  • 22 Cutaway mini busses. 
  • 24 Paratransit vans 
  • 18 staff vehicles.

To help keep some of its vehicles charging while in service Link employs a series of wireless inductive charging locations.

“This is in-ground charging the bus drives over,” said Covey, “It’s 300 kilowatts. One minute of charging gives us about two additional miles.”

For some downtown and urban Wenatchee routes of 200-250 miles with bus ranges of 130 miles, the wireless chargers provides busses with enough extended range to operate 15 hours a day. Link has four of the grant-funded $500,000 chargers, three at Columbia Station and one in Leavenworth. One will be installed in the East Wenatchee Park and Ride and another in Manson.

Link capital projects for 22024 include:

  • A 41,000 sq. ft enclosed and heated electric bus parking garage at the Olds Station operations base. 
  • A park and ride in Entiat and another at Rock Island.
  • Bus stop improvements for destinations including Mill Bay Casino.
  • Four new purpose-built buses for Mission Ridge and Waterville.

Other projects include the Apple Blossom Center for a possible park and ride as that area population grows. Another park and ride at Leffler Field in Manson will include a wireless charger.

Link is working with TREAD, that Covey describes as “a local area nonprofit that has been very instrumental in bike pathways,” on Chelan-to-Manson, Wenatchee-to-Leavenworth, Wenatchee-to-Rock Island, and Wenatchee-to-Malaga pathway designs.

“Part of those pathways will hook up to bus stops and pullouts so you can put your bike on the bus, or we can drop you off so you can ride on the pathway safely,” Covey said.

Vision 2020 recap

Based on a successful 2019 campaign that raised additional revenue. Link embarked on a six-year Vision 2020 plan including 30-plus projects in Chelan and Douglas counties. As of Covey’s report the plan is ahead of projections with about 74 percent completed ahead of the 63 percent estimated at this stage. Just one of those is a new Sunday service implemented for the first time in agency history. 

A word about free fares

Link weathered the 1999 I-695 excise tax measure approved by voters that rolled back vehicle excise taxes to $30.

“Half the funding for transit was in that motor vehicle excise tax, so we lost that,” Covey said.

In 2020 Link moved into its new building at Olds Station and laid off half its staff. 

“It was a tough time,” said Covey, “so we implemented fares to try and regain some of that revenue. At best we got about five percent of our revenue from fares. 

“When Covid hit everybody in the state went fare free,” said Covey. “Once Covid got over we decided to keep it that way.”

“Fares displace the folks who really need it most,” said Covey who explained that the two-way fare costs for a low-income family with children was unaffordable for many.

Link’s free fares also meet nearly half a dozen Federal criteria that qualify the transit service to receive more than a half-million dollars per incentive.

“Right now, we are receiving five of those,” said Covey. “That’s a substantial chunk of money that fares would never come close to replacing. It’s better for us to keep it fare-free and to keep those incentives.”

Mike Maltais: 360-333-8483 or michael@ward.media

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