Proterra electric buses are some of the most popular in the U.S., being used by the University of Montana and to be added to the Mountain Line system in Missoula. If Big Sky gets the funding, we might see this model zipping around town in the coming years.

Big Sky Transportation District looks to bring electric buses to town

For Big Sky Transportation District Coordinator and the Western Transportation Institute Director David Kack, it often feels like things are a year behind when it comes to getting new buses for Big Sky’s burgeoning Skyline public transportation service. 

The need for more buses comes down to aging vehicles and a steady increase in ridership. In fiscal year 2018 more than 84,000 rides were given to and from Bozeman and Big Sky—up 3 percent from the year before. Since a “low point”  logged in 2010 when just over 36,000 riders made the trip through the canyon, ridership is up 133 percent.

And then there’s the local service in Big Sky, which saw 113,866 rides in the most recent fiscal year, up nearly 10 percent from the year before and 81 percent since 2010. 

Four new 50-person buses were allocated to Big Sky as part of the federal TIGER grant awarded to the community earlier this year, but the official documentation is still underway, and Kack said his best guess would be that the buses might hit Big Sky streets by the winter of 2019-20. 

There’s also an ongoing order from the Montana Department of Transportation, with two 35-passenger buses on order for Big Sky—they’re slated to show up in the summer of 2019. By then, four of the current buses will need to be retired.

So, the wait for more buses is on. But that’s not to say Kack and others invested in keeping Big Sky’s public transportation running are now sitting around waiting for things to happen—their recent focus earlier this summer was on a Federal Transit Authority “Low and No-Emissions Grant.” 

With support from Kack, the Montana Department of Transportation applied for the grant on behalf of Big Sky and Bozeman for two buses in each community. But it was recently learned the University of Montana in Missoula was the winner in the state.

“Which I can understand,” said Kack of the decision to send the buses to Missoula. “It’s one of those non-attainment areas, with consistent air quality issues. The air is bad there.”

Before Big Sky could even qualify for the grant that would pay for two busses and a charging station they had to come up with 15 percent of the total cost. In short order, support was shown via donations from local resort communities, the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce, Big Sky Resort, Skyline and others, totaling $256,000, with the total cost of two buses and a changing station for Big Sky estimated at around $1.6 million.

While that effort didn’t pan out, the electric bus supporters already have their sights set on another opportunity—the soon to be released request for proposal for the Volkswagen Mitigation plan administered by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. 

Kack said he’s all ears for when that RFP is issued, eager to learn how much potentially could be covered, as well as what will need to be raised locally if a match is needed. 

“The good thing,” said Kack, “is that we already have all the info for the application, as well as the supporters.” 

Skyline is now in its 13th year of operations in Big Sky. When asked how many vehicles were in the fleet, Kack had to pause, “Plus one, minus that one,” he counted, arriving at 12 buses, three 44-passenger, one 35-passenger, and the remainder carrying approximately 25 riders.

While two electric buses might not completely solve the district’s constant need for more buses, Kack is hopeful the state will see Big Sky’s need when the VW grant process takes place.

“As Big Sky continues to grow, I think people are seeing the need for transit with reduced emissions,” said Kack. “Think of groups like Protect Our Winters that look at climate change and its effects on snow. We can’t have a ski industry if we don’t have snow. Running a zero tailpipe emission bus up and down the canyon would be a step in the right direction.”

Lisa Lillelund, sustainability and international business advisor and founder of MANGO Networks Inc., worked with Lone Mountain Land Company and the Town Center to bring electric vehicle charging stations to Big Sky—succeeding in that goal a year ago. The two charging stations are located in the parking lot behind Compass Café, offering four universal plugs, which can be used by many types of electric vehicles. 

“One of our goals was to get Big Sky on a national charging station app,” Lillelund explained. “If you’re on the road, you can check to see where the next charge could be. And thinking of the people that land in Bozeman and head to Yellowstone through West, we thought it’d be great to add a station along that corridor. And, it brings people into Big Sky.”

Lillelund is now working with Kack and interested parties in Big Sky to bring electric buses to the community, lending her environmental expertise towards the campfaign to leverage funds to bring the low emission dream to fruition. Lillelund too was admittedly disappointed upon learning Bozeman and Big Sky lost out to Missoula in the FTA program, but that’s not stopping her from moving on to the next opportunity with VW.

“The Gallatin Canyon is such a beautiful area, and Big Sky is such a beautiful town—wouldn’t it be nice to have clean, quiet transportation?” Lillelund said. “Of course I’m not sure if we’ll get (the VW funds) it, but the most exciting thing is that so many people in this community will come together to try.”2

Before Big Sky could even qualify for the grant that would pay for two busses and a charging station they had to come up with 15 percent of the total cost. In short order, support was shown via donations from local resort communities, the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce, Big Sky Resort, Skyline and others, totaling $256,000, with the total cost of two buses and a changing station for Big Sky estimated at around $1.6 million.

While that effort didn’t pan out, the electric bus supporters already have their sights set on another opportunity—the soon to be released request for proposal for the Volkswagen Mitigation plan administered by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. 

Kack said he’s all ears for when that RFP is issued, eager to learn how much potentially could be covered, as well as what will need to be raised locally if a match is needed. 

“The good thing,” said Kack, “is that we already have all the info for the application, as well as the supporters.” 

Skyline is now in its 13th year of operations in Big Sky. When asked how many vehicles were in the fleet, Kack had to pause, “Plus one, minus that one,” he counted, arriving at 12 buses, three 44-passenger, one 35-passenger, and the remainder carrying approximately 25 riders.

While two electric buses might not completely solve the district’s constant need for more buses, Kack is hopeful the state will see Big Sky’s need when the VW grant process takes place.

“As Big Sky continues to grow, I think people are seeing the need for transit with reduced emissions,” said Kack. “Think of groups like Protect Our Winters that look at climate change and its effects on snow. We can’t have a ski industry if we don’t have snow. Running a zero tailpipe emission bus up and down the canyon would be a step in the right direction.”

Lisa Lillelund, sustainability and international business advisor and founder of MANGO Networks Inc., worked with Lone Mountain Land Company and the Town Center to bring electric vehicle charging stations to Big Sky—succeeding in that goal a year ago. The two charging stations are located in the parking lot behind Compass Café, offering four universal plugs, which can be used by many types of electric vehicles. 

“One of our goals was to get Big Sky on a national charging station app,” Lillelund explained. “If you’re on the road, you can check to see where the next charge could be. And thinking of the people that land in Bozeman and head to Yellowstone through West, we thought it’d be great to add a station along that corridor. And, it brings people into Big Sky.”

Lillelund is now working with Kack and interested parties in Big Sky to bring electric buses to the community, lending her environmental expertise towards the campaign to leverage funds to bring the low emission dream to fruition. Lillelund too was admittedly disappointed upon learning Bozeman and Big Sky lost out to Missoula in the FTA program, but that’s not stopping her from moving on to the next opportunity with VW.

“The Gallatin Canyon is such a beautiful area, and Big Sky is such a beautiful town—wouldn’t it be nice to have clean, quiet transportation?” Lillelund said. “Of course I’m not sure if we’ll get (the VW funds) it, but the most exciting thing is that so many people in this community will come together to try.”

 

Comment Here