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Community Transportation Academy: La Crosse transit tour!

Image: an electric bus full of eager Community Transportation Academy participants.

Last week we passed the halfway mark at the Community Transportation Academy in La Crosse! The milestone occasion was marked with two special guests: Adam Lorentz, Director of Transit for the City of La Crosse, and Tim Koterwski, Director of Operations for MTU.

Adam Lorentz began his role with the city in 2018 and during that time he has overseen the successful launches of the Automated Vehicle Locator (AVL), a hands-free ticketing and mobile pay system, and introduced the first Electric Buses into the system. Adam spoke to the class about his efforts to modernize the bus system and encourage “bus culture” in the La Crosse area. “People should ride the bus because they want to, not because they have to,” he said more than once during his talk.

Image: Adam Lorentz speaks to the class at UW La Crosse.

Nearly all the class participants have taken MTU at least one time, and many are regular bus riders. A lively Q&A from the well-informed group followed Adam’s talk. He answered questions about routes, fares, his work to promote bus culture, MTU’s success securing grant money to buy two electric buses, partnerships with local employers, and the challenges associated with planning transit service to new developments.

A dilemma nearly every transit system faces is whether to increase frequency of service or increase coverage. In other words, is it better to have fewer routes with more frequent service, or more routes with better coverage but infrequent service? Given budget constraints, most transit agencies are forced to choose between one or the other. Usually, increasing frequency wins out over expanding coverage.

Image: MTU Director Adam Lorentz speaks to a room full of people in the Student Union at UW La Crosse.

Questions about coverage vs. frequency brought up the topic of Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs), a topic that has come up multiple times during the class. RTAs have taxing and regulatory authority and are responsible for determining routes, schedules, and fares for an entire region. All of our neighboring states (Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan, and Illinois) have RTAs in place to successfully serve large metro areas. An RTA could improve public transit service in the La Crosse area, but unfortunately RTAs were outlawed by the Wisconsin legislature in 2011.

Image: Adam Lorentz pauses before boarding the EV bus at UW La Crosse.

After the talk and Q&A, the class boarded one of the city’s electric buses, and Director of Operations Tim Koterwski drove us all to the bus barn on Isle La Plume. There, the class learned more about the procurement of two electric buses for the city.

Image: Tim Koterwski is about to enter the bus barn after transporting the class to Isle La Plume.

Image: Class participants disembark at the bus barn.

Each bus cost over $1 million of federal grant money. The city owns the buses, but the rechargeable electric batteries are on a 6-year lease. Adam explained that the option to lease was appealing because the technology is so new there are yet unknowns about how long they will last before needing replacement.

Image: Tim Koterwski stands nonchalantly in front of a hybrid bus in the MTU fleet.

La Crosse studied other northern midwestern cities closely as models for how to successfully incorporate EV buses into a fleet in a climate with long, cold winters. (Duluth, MN, was particularly helpful in this regard!) The EV buses drive all of the same routes as the diesel and hybrid buses; in fact, this is a requirement of the American Disabilities Act.

Image: Class participants stand in the bus barn in front of two battery chargers.

The EV buses have been active since June 2022. So far, they have performed well throughout the winter season! La Crosse MTU is collecting a significant amount of data to inform future EV purchases. For example, Excel Energy, the local utility, installed a separate transformer exclusively for the battery chargers to track energy use. Future plans include the possibility of converting methane from waste treatment into energy for battery charging.

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