By the spring of 2018, SARTA CEO Kirt Conrad knew he was right: hydrogen fuel cells are the alternative energy source that will drive commercial, automotive, and public transportation to a zero emissions future. There was just one problem: it was a future only he and a few industry insiders could see.
“Because most Americans, including policy-makers, the media, and people who manage transit systems don’t know what fuel cells are or how they work, plug-in battery power was widely regarded as the best, and to many the only, alternative to the internal combustion engine,” Mr. Conrad said. “No matter how many times I touted the advantages of HFCs at conferences and symposiums around the country, my colleagues were skeptical, if they listened at all. I had to find a way to make fuel cells part of the zero-emission discussion.”
“Presenting a PowerPoint that included pictures of a bus and a complicated diagram of how HFCs work wasn’t making much of an impression,” he continued. “Transit professionals are hands-on not theoretical. They don’t want to talk about an HFC bus, they want to see and touch it. I knew that if they had an opportunity to kick the tires, look under the hood, put it up on a lift, and drive it they would listen to what I had to say.”
But knowing what had to be done and doing it are two distinctly different things. “I could have invited transit system managers to visit SARTA and check out our HFC buses, but they’re busy and few, if any would take the time to travel to Canton,” Mr. Conrad said. “That’s when it hit me: we would take the bus to them.”
And that is how SARTA’s award-winning “Borrow a Bus” (BaB) promotion was born.
The innovative program, which enables transit systems to literally borrow one of SARTA’s HFC buses, examine it, and place it in regular service, has been a hit since its rollout in October 2018. “Requests began pouring in almost immediately from across the nation and around the globe,” Mr. Conrad said. “A transit agency in Australia wants to borrow a bus, we’re working on getting it there.”
Since its first stop at the Central Midlands Transit Authority in Columbia, South Carolina, the Borrow a Bus tour has visited Washington, D.C., Alexandria, VA., Naperville, IL, Chicago, IL, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, and Orlando, Fl, Lansing, MI, New Brunswick, NJ, San Francisco, CA, and even internationally to Toronto and Mississauga ON, Canada. The bus on loan is trailered to and from SARTA’s Canton, OH headquarters and is accompanied by Mr. Conrad and/or other representatives of the transit system.
“We’re enthusiastic about BaB because it has enabled us to make HFC’s part of the discussion about the future of zero emission transportation that has, to this point been dominated by the plug-in electric sector,” Mr. Conrad said. “We’re telling the fuel cell story in a way that is captivating imaginations and generating interest that will help make HFCs the alternative energy source for the 21st Century and beyond.”
Mr. Conrad said he often spends two to three hours answering questions from drivers, mechanics, and managers after they have had a chance to inspect and drive the bus. “They want to know why we selected hydrogen as our alternative fuel source, how we funded the program, and how well the vehicles perform in everyday use,” he said.
“I tell them that HFC buses offer the range, reliability, and affordability that makes fuel cells the best zero-emission solution in the transit industry, and that we’ve been proving it on the streets of Stark County every day for nearly two years,” Mr. Conrad said. “Thanks to BaB, that message is gaining traction. Leaders of a number of the systems we’ve visited are now actively considering adding HFC vehicles to their fleets.”
“During our visit to Washington, D.C. we had the opportunity to discuss the advantages of HFCs with officials from the U. S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority (METRO), and Alexandria, Virginia’s DASH transit system,” Mr. Conrad said. “They were universally impressed with the bus’s range, performance, and quiet operation. Both Metro and DASH are preparing to increase their zero emissions fleet and now both systems are taking a serious look at HFC power as an option.”
In 2020 SARTA received the prestigious Calstart Blue Sky Award for the Borrow a Bus promotion. “SARTA is such an evangelist for fuel cell buses that… the transit agency has launched a national promotion that allows other transit agencies to borrow a fuel cell bus …to raise public awareness about and generate support for fuel cell technology. And it’s working–interest has poured in from all over the country,” Calstart President and CEO John Boesel said during the virtual award ceremony.
The promotion is supported by El Dorado National, one of the leading bus manufactures in the U.S. and BAE which makes the propulsion system that drives SARTA’s fuel cell buses. The companies provide free technical support and fuel for the vehicles on loan. For more information or to schedule a Borrow-A-Bus visit, please complete and submit the BaB contact form below or contact the program administrator at 330-477-2782 Ext. 570