High Desert Electrification: AVTA Continues Its Historic Push For A Greener Future

By Harrell Kerkhoff Busline Magazine Editor

AVTA Executive Director/CEO Martin Tompkins is shown with one of the transit system’s BYD electric buses.

All-electric public bus transportation is in high gear in Southern California’s high desert. Case in point is Antelope Valley Transit Authority (AVTA), headquartered in Lancaster, CA, which continues to push toward a “greener” future for northern Los Angeles County and beyond.

Earlier this year, it was announced by AVTA officials that the transit agency’s all-electric fleet had accomplished a major milestone — passing the 10 million electric mile mark. As the first and largest all-electric local bus fleet in the nation, AVTA operates 57 fixed-route buses (with 26 on order), all of which are — and will be — zero-emission BYD electric buses manufactured at the company’s nearby Lancaster facility.

AVTA also has seven fully electric vans (with 19 on order) used for dial-a-ride paratransit and microtransit services, and a fleet of 24 zero-emission, high-capacity, electric MCI commuter coaches. The combined fleet continues to add up the electric miles while serving residents of the Antelope Valley communities of Lancaster and Palmdale, as well as unincorporated portions of northern Los Angeles County.

According to AVTA, approximately 2.5 million gallons of diesel fuel have been saved during the past 10 million miles of electric bus use by the transit authority. That equates to a net savings of $3,375,000 in fuel costs after paying for electricity. Additionally, the 10 million all-electric miles represent a carbon footprint reduction of more than 59.4 million pounds of CO2 and 187,000 pounds of particulate matter.

“The Antelope Valley is a unique place. It’s largely driven by the aerospace industry and is home to Edwards Air Force Base. Many test flights and NASA Space Shuttle landings have occurred here,” AVTA Executive Director/CEO Martin Tompkins said, during a recent interview. “It’s a place to think big, which is what our (AVTA) Board of Directors has done when it comes to serving the community with an all-electric fleet.

“Electric conversion doesn’t happen overnight. Our journey has taken many steps, as our staff has worked to fulfill the vision laid out by the board. Long before electric buses started transporting AVTA passengers, our board envisioned a future where greener technology would be used to provide better public transportation options for the community. Once the vision was established, we started working with electric vehicle providers to bring that vision to life.”

Through that process, a strong relationship was built between AVTA and BYD, a manufacturer of battery electric buses and motorcoaches, with a 556,000-square-foot facility in Lancaster, not far from AVTA headquarters.

“Our relationship with BYD goes back nearly 10 years, and includes an early two-bus pilot program. Since that time, AVTA and BYD have enjoyed a successful and transparent relationship,” Tompkins said.

The AVTA board voted in February 2016 to award a contract to BYD to manufacture electric buses for the transit authority over a five-year period, from BYD’s Lancaster facility. The move set AVTA on the path to pioneering battery electric bus transportation. The project created a smarter, greener, and more interconnected transit system serving the Antelope Valley and areas extending south into the Los Angeles basin. By combining the latest technologies involving electric bus development and wireless inductive charging, AVTA’s electric bus project has been a model that many transit systems have studied for the past several years.

“BYD demonstrated to us early on the company’s strong support for their vehicles, which includes their technicians providing for our needs,” Tompkins said. “BYD products have been successful for us. That includes a comfortable and quiet ride for our passengers, in an easily accessible low-floor vehicle. Our bus operators like them as well. Plus, since these are zero-emission buses, there are no diesel exhaust fumes to breathe in, such as at our transit center.”

Helping support AVTA’s fleet of electric vehicles is a network of charging equipment and stations at the transit authority’s main facility and other locations. Also available is a 1-megawatt backup generator, which allows AVTA personnel to charge up to 15 buses at a time in case something goes wrong within the charging network.

AVTA installed the first 50 kW WAVE inductive charging system in Southern California in 2017, and by the following year began installing its first four 250 kW WAVE charging stations to charge buses from wireless pads, strategically located along various AVTA bus routes. There are currently inductive charging pads at Sgt. Steve Owen Memorial Park, the Blvd. Transit Center, Palmdale Transportation Center, the South Valley Transit Center, and Antelope Valley College.

“The WAVE inductive charging pads allow our bus operators to pull in at those facilities for 10 minutes, letting their buses receive an additional charge. That way, they don’t always have to return to our main facility to recharge,” Tompkins said.

Other forms of technology, used on and off vehicles, have also proven beneficial at AVTA. For example, the transit authority’s operations team uses technology installed on AVTA vehicles to check each vehicle’s performance while on the road, while an app is available for passengers to check on the location of buses in real time. Meanwhile, AVTA bus schedules can be found on Google Transit.

Specific software is also used by the transit authority for the betterment of AVTA’s electric bus fleet. The software helps set parameters for each bus route that involves algorithms to provide the best charging schedule. That helps bus operators know when to pull into an AVTA facility for a recharge.

“That has been very successful for us, allowing buses to be kept on their routes longer during a shift, while also reducing the anxiety of bus operators who may become apprehensive about having enough battery power to continue on a route,” Tompkins said. “We have also worked hard to provide quality bus shelters over the years, which is very important in the Antelope Valley due to temperature extremes — from 20 degrees in the winter to 110 degrees in the summer. We closely work with area communities to improve our bus stop amenities across multiple service areas.”

Blossoming In The High Desert

Being the most populous county in the United States, with an estimated 9.8 million residents, Los Angeles County is big in other ways as well — including its size at 4,083 square miles. Despite its large population, there is still a lot of room to move around within the county — especially in its northern end, which includes the cites of Lancaster and Palmdale and their estimated populations of 173,516 and 169,450, respectively. Those two cities and unincorporated portions of northern Los Angeles County make up the main AVTA service region.

“AVTA was formed in 1992 in response to an expressed desire from area residents for public transportation. As a result, there was an agreement developed with the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale, along with Los Angeles County, to form a uniformed agency,” Tompkins said. “(AVTA) launched three services: local transit, commuter, and dial-a-ride (paratransit). In March 2022, we became the first all-electric transit agency in North America, operating 16 local routes, as well as four commuter routes that provide service to downtown Los Angeles and other areas.”

Additionally, in 2020, AVTA launched an on-demand microtransit ride service that mainly serves rural areas. Also, AVTA’s dial-a-ride now provides complementary service in association with Los Angeles County’s Access Services paratransit program. Dial-a-ride offers curb-to-curb transportation for qualified seniors, disabled people, and people who reside in designated rural zones in the Antelope Valley.

“It’s very easy to fill out our dial-a-ride eligibility application. It can be done online or at our office. Service hours are 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on weekdays, and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the weekend,” Tompkins said. “Overall, AVTA now provides local, commuter, dial-a-ride and microtransit services to a population of approximately 450,000 residents. Our total service area covers around 1,200 square miles and involves both urban and rural transportation — from heavy downtown traffic to places where there can be 15 miles between stops.

“As AVTA continues to electrify its dial-a-ride services, all local and commuter services are 100% fully electric, covering approximately 2.8 million revenue miles per year. A lot has changed since AVTA started in the early 1990s with a few routes and about 36 vehicles. AVTA has steadily grown over the years, and has become heavily involved with the community by fulfilling many transportation needs.”

Plans involving new service options are also in the works. AVTA officials are currently looking at ways to make frequency improvements within certain routes, to reduce wait times and improve efficiency. Rightsizing AVTA’s service to better meet post-pandemic ridership numbers is also important.

“Our annual ridership in 2019 was 2.3 million passengers. Although slowly coming back, ridership has not been at the same level since the pandemic, thus the need to rightsize our system,” Tompkins said.

Growth, however, is coming to AVTA in various ways. For example, the agency recently announced it has been awarded $3.9 million in funding from a state transportation grant, known officially as Transit Intercity Rail Capital Program (TIRCP). The funding will help with the implementation of the “High Desert Clean Connector,” a project that will create a zero-emission commuter transit connection between the Antelope Valley and Victorville, a city of over 134,000 residents in San Bernardino County, CA. Victorville is approximately 60 miles east of Lancaster and Palmdale. The award will also pay for four zero‐emission buses to be used on the High Desert Clean Connector.

Victor Valley Transit Authority participated as co-applicant of the grant proposal and has joined AVTA in support of the project, which is expected to have a total cost of $5.4 million.

“The project will connect Antelope Valley and Victor Valley with zero-emission commuter bus service,” Tompkins said.

The objective of the project is to positively impact local communities by providing a clean and efficient transportation option for area residents and visitors.

The Word Is Out

As with many systems across the country, officials at AVTA spend considerable time and effort marketing the transit authority’s various services. That is done through community outreach, participation in traditional and social media outlets and being active at American Public Transportation Association (APTA) conferences. The goal is to spread the word throughout the region, state, nation, and world about AVTA, its services and — of course — its fleet of electric buses. The latter item has brought transit leaders from throughout the world to Lancaster.

“Since our journey began to have a fully electric fleet, we have given multiple tours to not only our counterparts in the United States, but officials representing public transportation in such places as Chile and other parts of South America, Mexico and Canada,” Tompkins said. “AVTA has piqued the interest of many transit professionals when it comes to bus electrification. That involves not only our buses, but also our infrastructure, the type of transit programs we have in place and how we monitor everything.”

Although the use of modern technology has put AVTA on the map, Tompkins is quick to point out a transit authority cannot operate and service customers without quality employees.

“I believe our employees are the most important piece to our success. Without them, we could not have achieved anything at AVTA,” Tompkins said. “The group of employees we have here is special, probably the best group I have worked with during my 37-year career.”

AVTA currently has 56 employees, while its contractor, MV Transportation, employs approximately 189 people who serve the transit authority in such capacities as bus operators, maintenance technicians, road supervisors and dispatchers. Tompkins said AVTA’s staff has experienced very little turnover in recent years. There continues to be challenges, however, with finding enough bus operators— a trend being experienced in many parts of the country. One strategy to increase AVTA’s workforce numbers involves increasing wages, which has helped.

Although all jobs are important, the role of bus operator is critical to the success of any public transportation provider. Tompkins said there are two main elements to being a good operator.

“First, what makes a good bus operator is being a safe bus operator — somebody who safely gets passengers from point A to point B on a routine basis. Secondly, good bus operators make sure passengers feel comfortable and are welcomed the moment they board the bus,” Tompkins said. “That includes greeting passengers with a smile and providing excellent service.

“With the assistance of our contractor, we have implemented an ‘Excellence in Operator Training’ program, focused on all aspects of delivering safe, courteous, and reliable service. We work hard to treat all customers with respect. That is taught throughout our entire organization, not just with bus operators.”

He added AVTA bus operators are specially trained to operate the transit authority’s electric buses. That includes knowing how to take advantage of the regenerative braking process.

“There are different dynamics involved with operating an electric bus. One major aspect is understanding, and feeling comfortable with, the range of the vehicle,” Tompkins said. “We found that some bus operators had range anxiety early on about running out of charge while on the road. They were used to looking at a needle on a gauge to let them know how much diesel fuel was left. Now, they had to understand the state of charge in the bus. If it shows 20 percent, what does that relate to? How many miles are left at 20 percent? Our training procedures are focused to answer such questions.”

Challenges Continue, Opportunities Abound

The last three years have been a challenging time for public transportation entities around the world. The global pandemic brought with it a total shutdown and/or reduction of services, a refocus on passenger and bus operator safety, and now a shifting back to more “normal” times, as society in general, and transit in particular, grapple with the many challenges and opportunities involved in a post-pandemic world.

“It was a crazy time in our history,” Tompkins said, referring to the pandemic and how it changed day-to-day operations at AVTA.

“The main objective was to keep our riders and employees safe. Therefore, steps were taken to promote personal space and social distancing. We reduced the maximum occupancy on our buses by 50 percent, and implemented a rear door boarding policy during the height of the pandemic. Protective barriers were also installed for our bus operators,” Tompkins said. “Other measures included increasing the rate of surfacing cleaning in all our vehicles between each trip. It was also vital that we properly communicated with our ridership and employees all that was being done.”

To reduce exposure to the outside world for bus operators and all employees during the pandemic, three hot meals per day were provided for six months by AVTA at its main facility.

“There were a lot of things happening. The pandemic was a wakeup call for the entire world. At AVTA, we felt it was imperative to protect our employees, which included feeding them while they were at work. We had hot food stations set up for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” Tompkins said.

Despite having to deal with multiple challenges, there were good things that took place during the time period for AVTA. Most notably, the transit authority was able to decommission its last diesel bus from service in April 2020, allowing it to truly become an all-electric bus fleet provider.

Although many pandemic-related safety procedures have since ceased at various transit systems, noteworthy exceptions at AVTA include a continued high focus on bus cleanliness, and keeping bus operator barriers in place for added security. One significant ramification of the pandemic that continues to impact public transportation in general is reduced ridership, a trend being reported in many parts of the country. AVTA has not been immune to this challenge.

“While our capacity has returned to normal and ridership numbers are up at AVTA, we are not fully back compared to pre-pandemic numbers,” Tompkins said. “I believe ridership in many parts of the country will continue to struggle for several years. That is why we are looking at innovative solutions to not only attract more riders, but to rightsize our equipment and service levels for today’s new ridership levels. That includes offering more on-request trips and ride-share solutions. Technology helps, allowing us to better communicate with the public through smartphone applications.”

Despite such challenges, Tompkins said AVTA remains a vital part of the Antelope Valley community.

“As a joint powers agency, we work closely with communities in our valley as well as Los Angeles County. We also work closely with seniors, veterans, the disabled, and student populations. AVTA receives a great deal of positive feedback regarding its services. It’s our objective to meet the new demands of public transportation.”

That includes servicing not only people who are dependent on AVTA’s transit services to get where they need to go, but also the growing number of choice riders who often take advantage of the transit authority’s commuter service. Another objective that remains in place at AVTA is further reducing the transit authority’s carbon footprint. Along with the continuation of operating a fleet of electric buses, plans are in the works to build a nearby solar farm.

“We are in the process of looking at 43 acres of land adjacent to our property. The idea is to have a solar farm built for the purpose of charging batteries through solar power,” Tompkins said. “That may be 18 to 24 months down the road.”

Looking back on his 37-year career in public transportation, starting as a driver, Tompkins spoke highly of the profession.

“If you like working with people, and want to make a positive community impact, then transit is the way to go,” Tompkins said. “I started as a dial-a-ride driver and then moved up to being a big bus operator. What motivated me each day was the positive impact I was able to provide to my passengers. Many people take transportation for granted, but it’s not always readily available for such groups as seniors and the disabled. Being part of their transportation solution is very fulfilling.

“As a driver, I recall helping people who didn’t know how to get to their next location or how to connect with another bus. I was able to take a few moments to walk them through the process. It’s that type of satisfaction that has stayed with me my entire career. Although I don’t operate buses anymore, it’s still my responsibility, as a leader of an agency, to ensure that my staff and I create transportation solutions for all members of our community — including those who are truly in need. Sometimes it’s tough, but it’s important to stay the course and find ways to improve. Public transportation is a very rewarding career, both personally and professionally.”

Visit www.avta.com.

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