Future of new electric bus purchasesin CT unclear as Republicans call for moratorium following fire

Connecticut transportation officials have yet to make a decision on purchasing additional electric buses after a fire that destroyed one of the CTtransit bus last month, which officials say was the first of its kind involving a battery-powered bus in Connecticut.

Meanwhile, some Republicans are pointing to the incident to call for a moratorium on the state’s plans to move away from its existing fleet of diesel buses.

The exact cause of the fire, which completely engulfed the decommissioned bus, sending two transit workers to the hospital for smoke inhalation, remains under investigation by both state and federal authorities, with a preliminary report likely to be released in the coming weeks.

The state Department of Transportation has pulled the other 11 electric buses in its fleet from service. The incident came as the agency had begun accelerating its transition to a zero-carbon fleet, spurred by a new law that bans the state from buying new diesel buses starting in 2024.

Last week, Governor Ned Lamont announced the receipt of a new, $20.4 million federal grant for the DOT to modernize its Southeast Regional Transit Center in Preston, including the purchase of new buses. A press release announcing the grant did not mention the recent fire, or whether the state would use the federal funds to buy electric buses or new diesel buses before the Jan. 1 deadline.

“We have not made any decisions about future acquisitions at this time,” DOT spokeswoman Kafi Rouse said Friday.

Rouse said the July 23 fire was an “isolated incident,” adding that it has not affected the department’s plans to transition to a carbon-free fleet. The state has not purchased any new buses of any kind since the fire, he added.

While the experts say so electric vehicles are not at greater risk to catch fire than other gasoline and diesel-burning vehicles, the difficulty of extinguishing flames inside their lithium-ion battery packs has raised some additional concerns, especially among firefighters.

A spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the Hamden fire along with state police, said the agency has not previously investigated any similar incidents involving this particular model of bus, which was manufactured by New Flyer.

The agency is expected to release its preliminary report within a few weeks, the spokesman said, followed by a full report determining probable cause and contributing factors within a year or two.

Representatives for New Flyer and the vehicle’s battery maker, XALT Energy, did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

After largely opposing the move of Connecticut Clean Air Act — also known as SB4 — during this year’s legislative session, Republicans this week accused Democratic lawmakers of rushing to electrify the state’s fleet without considering hiccups in the technology. The bill requires one-third of transit buses and nearly all of the state’s fleet of cars and light trucks to run on zero-emissions engines by 2030.

In a letter sent Monday to the chairs of the Transportation Committee, state Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme, and Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, requested that the committee hold a public hearing to investigate the fire and research The two lawmakers are the top Republicans on the Transportation Committee.

Carney told Hearst Connecticut Media on Friday that the DOT should halt all new purchases of electric buses until the investigation concludes and lawmakers have a chance to question the investigators on their findings.

In addition to the initial purchase of 12 buses last year, transportation officials announced a plan order 22 additional buses in March at a cost of $25.7 million, helped in part by another federal grant.

“These are very expensive taxpayer-funded buses,” Carney said. “We have to make sure they’re safe for people. … There’s a big concern, ‘What if this happened while people were there?’ We don’t want a tragedy like this to happen.”

Transportation Committee Co-Chairman Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, responded to that letter this week, saying that while the committee already planned to hold public meetings on several issues this fall, he wasn’t sure the investigation would on the The bus fire warranted an independent hearing.

Asked whether the DOT should continue to buy electric buses or return its existing fleet to service before the conclusion of the investigation, Haskell said he trusted transportation officials to make that call.

“Fortunately, this appears to be an isolated and very rare incident,” Haskell said in a text message. “Across the country, electric buses have proven to be a critical tool in reducing emissions and fighting climate change. That said, the Department for Transport is taking the fire very seriously… In my view, it would be premature insert politics into the discussion before these investigations are completed.”

Carney said Friday that he trusted both state and federal investigators to get to the bottom of the fire, but that lawmakers should have a chance to review those findings before DOT can move forward with its electrification plans.

“The Legislature is the body that pushed through SB4 without considering any of this,” Carney said. “So if the legislature thinks they know what’s best for transportation policy, we should be at the forefront of understanding what happened.”

Meanwhile, firefighters say they are also developing a new understanding of electric vehicle fires and how to put them out as a result of the incident in Hamden.

According to the State Fire Marshal’s Office, no other electric vehicle fires have been reported in Connecticut through the National Fire Reporting System in the last five years.

Reporter Abigail Brone contributed to this article.

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