Humboldt Transit Authority Receives $38.7 Million Grant to Purchase Hydrogen Bus Fleet and Improve Connectivity in Northern California | Lost Coast Outpost



A fleet of 11 hydrogen fuel cell electric transit buses like this one will soon be plying the roads of Humboldt. | Photo: Ryan Burns

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Humboldt is once again at the forefront of clean energy innovation on the North Coast. The California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) recently awarded a $38.7 million grant to the Humboldt Transit Authority (HTA) to fund a fleet of zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell electric buses to serve local routes and connecting riders to Mendocino County and ultimately the San Francisco Bay Area. The fleet will be the first of its kind in Northern California.

The grant funds will enable the HTA to purchase 11 hydrogen fuel cell electric buses, install hydrogen refueling infrastructure, and provide public transportation services to the HTA Regional Transit and Housing Center. ‘Eureka, or EaRTH Center, which will serve as the city’s future transit hub and provide housing for students, traveling medical staff and active residents.

“We are in the early stages of converting our entire fleet of 32 buses to zero-emissions buses…to connect Humboldt County residents with nationwide connections, such as with Amtrak, SMART train and bus service to major cities,” Greg Pratt, general manager of the HTA, told the Outpost. “Replacing 11 of our diesel buses with hydrogen fuel cell buses will eliminate more than 120,000 gallons of diesel used for public transportation each year. … We still have a lot of work to do, but it’s a good start to reach our goal.

CalSTA has awarded nearly $800 million in grants to fund 23 zero-emissions transit and intercity rail projects across California to move the state forward Climate action plan for transport infrastructure (CAPTI) and help transit agencies comply with the California Air Resource Board’s Innovative Clean Transit (ICT) rule that prohibits transit agencies from purchasing fossil-fuel vehicles after 2029.

Peter Lehman, founding director of the Schatz Energy Research Center at Cal Poly Humboldt, helped HTA apply for the grant. Lehman has been working on hydrogen and fuel cell technology for 30 years. It helped build the nation’s first solar-powered hydrogen fueling station in the Coachella Valley in the 1990s, and in the 2000s the Center helped AC Transit, an Oakland-based transit agency, to acquire some of the first hydrogen fuel cell buses.

“And now we’re bringing them to Humboldt County,” Lehman told the Outpost. “It’s been a long time coming and it will open up the possibility for people to adopt hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for zero-emission transportation, from small cars to large trucks. It’s really wonderful that this project is happening and that we are involved.

When CalSTA contacted Lehman and Pratt to let them know they had won the scholarship, they were told their proposal was the best in the state. “We worked very hard on it and it made us very proud,” Lehman said.

The HTA purchased its first electric bus in June 2019. Although the bus provides daytime service between College of the Redwoods and Cal Poly Humboldt, it does not have the capability to take a longer route. The new buses, which will be supplied by the Alabama-based bus manufacturer New flyercan travel over 300 miles.

“One of the things we emphasized in this grant application was to connect public transit in Humboldt County to transportation hubs further south in California,” Lehman said. “New Flyer is building a better tech bus. …They have batteries but they also have a fuel cell, which is an electricity generator. They therefore carry their own generator on board to recharge the battery while the bus is running.

The project actually inspired New Flyer to “build a better bus” with a bigger fuel cell and more hydrogen reserves on board, he added. “It will have enough range to get to and from Ukiah and that is a big deal in the whole zero-emissions technology space. This project has sparked a new development that will be important nationally.

For the past two years, the HTA has worked with the Mendocino Transit Authority to continue the route to Santa Rosa and beyond the Bay Area. The agency has also partnered with the Lake Transit Authority to establish connections to Clear Lake, Calistoga and Napa.

“Del Norte, Humboldt, Lake and Mendocino counties will all have the same credit card readers installed to help passengers switch between systems,” Pratt said. “Inter-agency fare capping will be in place to limit the fare burden on the passenger.”

In addition to improving transit connectivity in Northern California, the grant will give the EaRTH Multimodal Center a much-needed financial boost. Eureka City Manager Miles Slattery said the housing element of the grant application was what made the application so competitive.

“This is great news for the city of Eureka and even more so for the local economy and public transit throughout the county,” Slattery told the Outpost. “It will improve access to our region and the access is huge.”

The EaRTH Center will serve as a transit hub for the county by integrating local and intercity bus service with car sharing, car pooling, bike lanes and pedestrian travel, according to the project summary. It will also provide workforce and student housing, day care, retail and open space co-located with transit at the center.

The timeline for the EaRTH center and the new bus fleet remains unclear, but Lehman estimated that at least some of the buses will be on the road in about 18 months. Construction of the Earth Center will likely begin late next year.

The complete description of the project is available here.

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