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Cathy Van Maren has been riding the bus with the La Crosse Municipal Transit Utility since she moved to the community when she was in second grade.

“We used to always ride the bus or walk or bike downtown in the summer. I took the bus to school. We took the bus everywhere and it was just a normal thing — and I’m not that old,” she said.

Van Maren, a member of the La Crosse Area Transit Advocates, as well as the MTU Board and the Wisconsin Transit Riders Alliance, organized an open house Wednesday at Grand River Station on Jay Street in La Crosse to help gather the stories of people who use the bus and promote usage of transit for the sake of the environment and health of the community.

“We just have got to stop driving cars everywhere,” Van Maren said, adding it was vital both to slow climate change and reduce emissions that can have harmful effects on people’s health.

MTU director Adam Lorentz was thrilled to host the event, welcoming people into the station and giving tours.

“We have a great transfer point here that can get you pretty much anywhere you want to go in the city of La Crosse,” Lorentz said.

The open house coincided with the debut of two new clean diesel buses, which just joined the fleet this week, as well as committee approval to purchase two new electric buses.

The 35-foot electric buses cost a total of $1.5 million, and $1.25 million of the cost will be funded through a federal low- or no-emissions grant.

The remaining cost was set aside for the MTU in the 2011 and 2013 capital improvement program budget for new transit equipment.

The buses, made by Proterra, are entirely electric and will have a range of 150 to 230 miles and take about three hours to charge — a charge that will run the bus for a day. Proterra estimates the city will save $433,000 on operating costs during the life of the bus compared to a typical diesel bus.

“People have asked me why we have not gone with electric for all of the buses, and the simple answer to that is the electric buses are part of a grand scheme thing for the city and the larger picture of going green,” Lorentz said.

For the past few years, MTU has been focused on revamping up the fleet and maintaining reliability for riders.

“For us, that’s augmenting our diesel buses — clean diesel — with the new electric buses,” Lorentz said. “My hope is after these 11 come here, we keep adding on with electric.”

When Lorentz joined the MTU, 16 out of 21 buses were past what’s considered their useful life — 12 years or 500,000 miles — which he said was pretty alarming.

“Thankfully we have such a great team and great auto techs and drivers to make sure we put the best bus out there,” Lorentz said.

While they were running, they took a lot of resources for maintenance. Previous MTU directors had already started the process to replace those buses, setting the service up to get 11 new buses in the next few years, including the two electric buses, along with facility upgrades.

“We’re going to set up our bus barn for the two charging stations, but then we’re also going to run the piping and the pads for more charging stations to be more cost effective,” Lorentz said. “So after our 11 get here now and we start to get more integrated, we don’t need to keep revamping our electrical grid each time,” Lorentz said.

It can 12 to 18 months to get new buses — which come in at about $420,000 per bus — in part because 80 percent of the funding comes from the federal government. The remaining 20 percent comes from local funds.

“It takes a little bit of time. Finances have to be available for grants, and then there’s just the build time for buses,” Lorentz said.

Buying buses isn’t like buying a car, where you can go out to a lot and pick one out. They are built to order, and it takes time for the funding to be worked out.

Van Maren is excited by the changes to the service during the past few years, including the new buses, the new circulator route which runs every 30 minutes, and the La Crosse MTU phone app with GPS tracking for the buses.

She envisions a future where transit is as cheap and easy to find in La Crosse as it is in places throughout Europe, where buses run every 10 minutes and it’s cheaper for most people use to use trains or buses, rather than own cars.

“We can do that too, if there was a will and some money to do it,” Van Maren said.

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Jourdan Vian can be reached at jvian@lacrossetribune.com or follow her on Twitter at @Jourdan_LCT.

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City government reporter

Jourdan Vian is a reporter and columnist covering local government and city issues for the La Crosse Tribune. You can contact her at 608-791-8218.

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