More Great News for Clean Air and Public Transit

May 25, 2018 | 12:02 pm
DC Circulator busPhoto: DC Circulator
Jimmy O'Dea
Former Contributor

Transit buses are community resources. They help pedestrians get around on rainy days, hot days, and cold days. They help subway riders get home when the trains stop running late at night. They help cyclists get through parts of town that aren’t bike friendly. They help crowds of people get to sporting events. They reduce the number of cars on the road in space-limited downtowns. They provide regular transportation for people that aren’t able to afford a car, people that choose not to have a car, and people that aren’t able to drive a car.

To meet air quality and climate goals, we need widespread electrification of all types of vehicles. Buses are the people’s electric vehicle.

And we’re seeing more and more electric buses hit road. Recent news shows how state and local governments are bringing zero-emission battery and fuel cell technology to the masses.

Major investments in California

California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA)

CalSTA recently announced awards for 285 zero-emission buses (in addition to major rail projects) that will be deployed across the state over the next five years. To my knowledge, this is the largest single investment in zero-emission buses in the United States to date. Communities from San Diego to Redding will benefit from these new buses.

A couple of noteworthy awards: funding will provide dozens of buses for new express routes along the highly congested US 101 corridor on the San Francisco Peninsula. Funding will also provide several electric coach buses operated by transit agencies in northern and southern California – yes, electric coach buses exist! These coach buses would also be great fits for companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple that provide transportation for their employees.

Funding for the 285 zero-emission buses comes from the state’s cap and trade revenue and the state’s fuel tax, the latter which increased in 2017 by 12 cents per gallon of gasoline with passage of Senate Bill 1.

California Legislature

The state legislature has authority to annually allocate 40 percent of cap and trade revenues that aren’t subject to continuous appropriations. The 2018 state budget provides $180 million of this cap and trade revenue for clean heavy-duty vehicle incentives, of which at least $35 million was specified for zero-emission transit buses. Budgets recently proposed for 2019 by the state Senate and Assembly indicate a similar commitment ($160 million and $150 million, respectively) for heavy-duty vehicle incentives next year.

California Air Resources Board (CARB)

CARB not only manages vehicle incentive funding allocated by the legislature, but it also directly oversees settlement money to offset the pollution from the Volkswagen #dieselgate scandal. CARB’s proposed plan for this funding could direct up to $65 million for zero-emission transit buses.

Taking the existing zero-emission buses on the road (100+), buses on order (340+), and the sources of funding above, I estimate at least 1,000 zero-emission buses will be on the road within the next five years in California, roughly 10 percent of all transit buses in the state. This means that many transit agencies are getting well ahead of milestones proposed by the California Air Resources Board for transitioning to a zero-emission fleet by 2040.

Strong commitments from transit agencies

Leadership on zero-emission buses is also coming directly from transit agencies and people asking transit agencies to take action. I’ve highlighted the work of King County Metro (Seattle-area) and Los Angeles Metro in previous blogs, but transit agencies large and small across the country are beginning to adopt electric buses. Here’s some of the most recent leadership we’re seeing from transit agencies.

San Francisco Muni

Muni, the transit agency serving San Francisco, recently adopted a resolution committing to all zero-emission buses by 2035. Muni has nearly 600 diesel and diesel hybrid buses. Combined with its 400 trolley buses, Muni is the second largest bus operator in California behind LA Metro.

Santa Monica Big Blue Bus

Another city leading the way in California is Santa Monica, which recently reaffirmed its 2016 commitment to transitioning its 200 bus fleet to zero-emissions by 2030. The city was awarded funding from Senate Bill 1 and cap and trade revenue (see above) for its first 10 electric buses. Santa Monica said this fall will be its last order of natural gas buses. This is a remarkable statement that I expect we’ll be hearing more and more from transit agencies.

It’s not just California

Washington, DC recently announced 14 battery electric buses have joined its fleet. And New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), who operates the largest bus fleet in the country with 4,000+ buses, casually made a huge announcement in its new bus plan that it will transition its entire fleet to zero-emission buses. A timeline for MTA’s transition hasn’t been specified yet.

The work ahead

Commitments to fleet transitions are the first step in getting zero-emission buses on the road. Then comes laying out a plan for acquiring the new buses, becoming familiar with the technology, and ultimately integrating the vehicles in significant numbers. A lot of thought, planning, and attention to detail are needed in between.

The transition to zero-emission fleets will require problem solving and teamwork across all aspects of the transit industry including route planners, bus makers, bus purchasers, facility managers, finance departments, mechanics, state and federal grant agencies, and public officials.

Like any new technology, there is a learning curve for the industry to overcome in the early years of adoption – such as figuring out the range an electric bus will get on specific routes in specific weather, because it won’t be the same as the range on the window-sticker. Fortunately, there isn’t any aspect of this learning curve I’ve seen that can’t be overcome.

There’s also myths that must be overcome with any new technology, such as electric buses’ ability to climb hills. The bus maker Proterra recently debunked this myth by climbing its bus up the canyons and mountain passes of every major ski resort near Salt Lake City. Another myth is the ability to operate in cold weather. Debunking this is Worcester Regional Transit Authority in central Massachusetts who has been operating battery electric buses since 2013.

One aspect of the transition to zero-emission buses that must be in place is hydrogen fueling and electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Utility companies must be given the green light to develop this infrastructure. From everything I’ve seen, electricians are more than ready for the job opportunities to build it out.

The magnitude of change needed to improve air quality and reduce climate change can be overwhelming, but I take great relief that we have the technology to overcome these challenges. China already has an estimated 386,000 electric buses on the road, which is more than five times the number of all types of transit buses in the United States. It can be done here too and there’s no time to wait.