ITHACA, N.Y.—Proterra, the largest manufacturer of electric buses in America and the company that has been supplying the growing fleet of electric buses for Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT), filed for bankruptcy last week

Proterra stated that it “intends to continue to operate in the ordinary course of business” when it announced it filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy on Aug. 7. But the development has stirred uncertainty at TCAT, a nonprofit corporation financially supported by the city of Ithaca, Tompkins County, and Cornell University.

TCAT has a fleet of seven electric buses from Proterra, which cost approximately $1 million each and were purchased with the support of a $2.3 million federal grant. Those seven have been on the road since 2021, when the company began pursuing the goal of transitioning to an all-electric fleet by 2035. 

TCAT has had plans to continue purchasing buses from Proterra. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration (FTA) awarded TCAT a competitive $8.7 million grant in 2022 through its Low or No Emission Grant Program. The funds were specifically granted to TCAT to purchase six more full size electric buses, and four electric micro buses from Proterra slated to be delivered in the summer of 2024.

Scot Vanderpool, TCAT’s General Manager, said a representative from Proterra told him on Tuesday that the company would be “business as usual” as it goes through its bankruptcy proceedings. Vanderpool has his “fingers crossed” that this will be the case.

“I don’t know how this whole Chapter 11 thing is gonna delay the process of us receiving the buses,” Vanderpool said. 

Proterra did not respond to a request for comment from The Ithaca Voice.

Vanderpool said that he is considering making an “inquiry” into exploring other electric bus vendors with the FTA, and that TCAT’s board of directors will be discussing their options in future meetings.

Five of the seven Proterra buses TCAT currently has are not road ready. There are various causes, according to Vanderpool. He said one needs parts that TCAT is waiting on to be delivered, and two have speed sensors that are not reading correctly. Vanderpool added that TCAT’s maintenance department is waiting for Proterra to respond to a request about how to fix the latter issue. 

The uncertainty around Proterra’s future marks another hurdle for TCAT. The company has been troubled over the last few years by staffing issues and backlogs in bus repairs.

Driving staff is starting to increase after TCAT bolstered its recruiting efforts, and after the union representing the drivers, mechanics, and other workers at TCAT won wage increases in its last labor contract negotiation with management. 

TCAT had just 52 full-time drivers in February. Vanderpool said that it now has 60, including those in training. 

In total, 20 of TCAT’s 53 buses — including electric and diesel — are in need of repairs or maintenance, Vanderpool said. The reasons for the buses being stuck in the garage vary. In some cases, delays in parts being shipped are preventing repairs from being completed, and broken bus lifts are contributing to the bottleneck in repairs, Vanderpool said.

The demand for TCAT’s services will rise with the return of college students to the Ithaca area in August. Proterra’s bankruptcy “is just another added difficulty for the company,” said Desiree Johnson, a bus driver at TCAT.

“It’s insane right now. These students are coming back full force,” Johnson said. 

Proterra’s bankruptcy comes after the company received a $10 million loan in 2020 through the Paycheck Protection Program, and was championed by the Biden administration alongside the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in 2021.

The IRA authorized hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending and tax credits to go towards energy and climate initiatives, including $5.5 billion for low and zero-emission buses. President Joe Biden took a recorded virtual tour of a Proterra facility in 2021, during which he said, “We’re going to keep going to the future, I think, if you keep — if we keep doing what we’re doing.”

Jimmy Jordan is Senior Reporter for The Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn