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Pace field-tests leased e-bus, will probably cancel redundant Pace/Metra PlusBus Pass

The Des Plaines Metra Station and Pace bus terminal. Photo: Igor Studenkov

Pace isn’t sitting on its hands as it’s waiting for its first 20 electric buses to arrive next year. The suburban bus system is already using a leased electric bus to do some field-testing before the new vehicles arrive.

Earlier this month, the suburban bus transit agency got a leased Gillig Battery Electric Bus, the same kind the Gary Public Transportation Corporation recently bought as part of its own electrification efforts. During Pace's April 20 board meeting, executive director Melinda Metzger explained the leased bus would give the system's drivers and mechanics a chance to practice driving and maintaining an electric bus before Pace's bus purchase is delivered, albeit a different model of e-bus.

During the same meeting, the board voted to proceed with a proposal to eliminate Pace's PlusBus Pass, which allows Metra monthly pass holders to ride Pace buses for an extra $30 a month. But this plan isn’t as drastic as it sounds. As part of its 2022 budget, the CTA made the Metra LinkUp Pass, which previously allowed monthly pass holders to take CTA and Pace buses and ‘L’ trains during rush hours for an extra $55 a month, more in line with the PlusBus Pass, which made the latter redundant. The Pace board is expected to take a final vote on the elimination of the PlusBus Pass during its June meeting.

Electric Bus

Last fall, Pace accelerated plans to make its fleet all-electric, setting a goal of 2040. The 2022 budget allocated $10 million to buy six electric buses and install charging stations at the North Division garage, which would be a significant improvement over the two diesel-electric buses used in Highland Park. During the board’s September 2021 meeting, then-executive director Rocky Donahue said that the goal was to convert all North Division routes, which serve Waukegan and the surrounding suburbs, to electric buses by 2026. The five-year capital plan called for Pace to buy 52 additional electric buses during that period.

During its March 16 meeting, the Pace board voted unanimously to piggyback on the State of Georgia’s electric bus purchasing contract with Proterra Inc., a Burlingame, California-based electric bus manufacturer, spending $26.5 million to buy the buses and the charging equipment. The vehicles are expected to be delivered in the first or second quarter of 2023, three years earlier than previously planned.

Director Linda Soto, who represents Lake County, said that “the diverse communities and geography of the Waukegan area make Pace’s North Division an ideal location” for the first round of electric bus orders. “I am proud Pace is able to step up with such a large and impactful investment in Lake County."

A Gillig electric bus.
A Gillig electric bus.
A Gillig electric bus.

During the April 20 board meeting, executive director Metzger said the leased Gillig bus will give drivers and mechanics the ability to practice driving and maintain an electric bus before the Proterra fleet arrives. She added this training will include putting the bus into service.

More recently, Pace spokesperson Maggie Daly Skogsbakken said, while Pace hasn’t decided where the leased bus might be used, it would most likely be in the North Division.

End of the Pace PlusBus pass

Metra’s Link-Up Pass and Pace PlusBus are essentially ad-ons to regular Metra monthly passes, allowing Metra riders to take CTA and Pace (in the case of the Link-Up Pass) or just Pace (in the case of the Pace PlusBus.) CTA’s 2022 budget brought the former in line with the later, lowering the price from $55 to $30 and removing the rush hour time limit.

During the April 20 board meeting, Pace’s chief planning officer Erik Llewellyn said this price reduction made Pace PlusBus pace redundant and less useful, and it made no sense to keep it around. “The Pace PlusBus pass will become duplicative of the LinkUp Pass and therefore would be proposed for discontinuation."

Llewellyn added that Pace is fine with that, since having one pass that works on all three systems around the clock makes riding transit more seamless. “As the region tries to recover from the pandemic, we're looking for opportunities to encourage riders to return to public transit."

Pace is also planning to make price reductions for 7-Day and 30-Day CTA/Pace passes, which went into effect last November, permanent.

Pace will hold six virtual public hearings (one per each county within the RTA service area) in late May, but given that these changes don’t involve raising fares or limiting transit options, having community meetings about them seems to be strictly a formality.

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