Has MoCo’s School System Committed $168 Million to Buy Edsel Electric Buses?

Red flags should have gone up at MCPS about Proterra’s role in the project, given their track record elsewhere.

Montgomery County’s Public Schools signed a contract last February to buy over 300 electric school buses, converting their entire fleet by 2035. The total lifetime contract cost of $168 million is reportedly the largest local government electric bus order in U.S. history.[i]  Largely hidden from view has been the procurement’s reliance on technology from Proterra in providing the school busses electric vehicle technology platform.

Curiously, the MCPS press release avoided mentioning vendor Proterra’s central role.[ii]  The Washington Post’s reporters Steve Mufson and Sarah Kaplan also avoided Proterra and parroted the county’s zero-emissions spin.[iii]  Proterra, on the other hand, has been vocal in trumpeting its role under the contract.[iv] 

Red flags should have gone up at MCPS about Proterra’s role in the project, given their track record elsewhere.

More than two dozen electric Proterra buses were first put in service by Philadelphia in 2016.  In order to promote their purchase, the buses were launched with great fanfare at the city’s 2016 Democratic National Convention. They are all now entirely no longer in service, according to a WHYY investigation. [v]

By 2020 the entire fleet of Proterra buses was removed from the roads by the city’s transit authority due to structural and logistical problems.  Specifically, the powerful battery’s weight was cracking the vehicles’ chassis, and the battery life was insufficient for the city’s bus routes. According to news reports, the city raised the issues with Proterra, which had failed to adequately address the city’s concerns. In total, the city paid $24 million for the 25 now non-functional Proterra buses.[vi]

Philadelphia is not alone in dealing with broken Proterra buses.

In Duluth, Minnesota, the Proterra buses were taken off the road because their brakes could not handle the city’s hills.[vii]  Two months after their unveiling, all seven buses were pulled from service because of their braking problems, and a software issue that was causing them to roll back when accelerating uphill from a standstill. [viii]

Foothill Transit, which serves the San Gabriel Valley, parts of Los Angeles, and western San Bernardino Valley, has faced still more problems.  As recently as July 7, 2021, only three of the 15 Proterra buses were available for service. Foothill Transit complains that parts for their Proterra buses are “difficult to obtain” and that expired warranties force the transit agency to pay tens of thousands of dollars for “advanced technology parts.”[ix]  The Proterra buses have been out of service for as long as 275 days because of replacement part availability.[x]   

Regarding a “thermal event,” a Foothill Transit spokeswoman explained to the Washington Free Beacon’s Matthew Foldi that a Proterra bus caught fire while connected to its charger. 

What Proterra lacks in technology reality, it has tried to make up with political connections.[xi] Former vice president Al Gore’s investment firm raised $55 million in financing for the electric battery company in 2017. Energy Department Secretary Jennifer Granholm’s investments in Proterra and her continued promotion of electric vehicles have triggered a letter from U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) to the Energy Department Inspector General requesting a review of the Secretary’s potential conflict of interest.[xii]

While the financial markets have noted Proterra’s growing woes, with its stock dropping by 57% since hitting a high at the time of Biden’s inauguration, the Biden Administration has shown no reservations about Proterra’s or its technology.   In April, the President visited the company’s factory and pledged his initial infrastructure package proposal to include federal money for the electric vehicle market. The company has since been touted by top officials, including White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy, who is a public meeting asked Proterra’s CEO how the federal government could spur demand for Proterra buses

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich has been ready to take political credit for speeding MoCo’s electric bus adoption. [xiii] It remains to be seen whether, if the Proterra technology fails as it has elsewhere whether he will accept responsibility for rushing through large-scale purchases on an as yet unproven, unreliable technology.

[i] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-02-24/biggest-electric-school-bus-deal-in-u-s-approved-in-maryland

[ii] https://ww2.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/press/index.aspx?pagetype=showrelease&id=10547;

[iii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2021/02/24/climate-solutions-electric-schoolbuses/

[iv] https://www.proterra.com/press-release/montgomery-county-approves-largest-electric-school-bus-order/

[v] https://whyy.org/articles/septas-cracking-battery-buses-raise-questions-about-the-future-of-electric-transit/

[vi] https://freebeacon.com/biden-administration/report-philadelphias-proterra-fleet-in-complete-shambles/

[vii] https://freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/3978507/posts

[viii] https://www.duluthmonitor.com/2020/09/19/electric-bus-pilot-project-reveals-problems/

[ix] http://foothilltransit.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/07-23-2021-Agenda-Packet-Executive-Board-Meeting.pdf

[x] https://freebeacon.com/biden-administration/proterra-bus-fire-prompts-california-agency-to-consider-shelving-electric-bus-fleet/

[xi] https://freebeacon.com/biden-administration/major-proterra-investor-al-gore-lobbies-white-house-on-infrastructure/

[xii] https://www.energy.senate.gov/2021/4/barrasso-requests-inspector-general-review-of-secretary-granholm-s-investments-in-electric-bus-company

[xiii] https://www.mymcmedia.org/montgomery-county-unveils-first-electric-ride-on-buses/