T’s electrification priorities appear to be stuck in traffic

By Veena Dharmaraj and Paola Massoli

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s (MBTA) recent Focus40 report outlining the 25-year investment plan to meet the transportation needs of the Greater Boston region makes no commitment to procuring electric buses beyond the testing of five electric buses on the Silver Line through 2023. This plan lacks a sense of urgency, especially when we need bold action to invest in a modern, clean, equitable, transportation system that is good for our economy and public health while getting us closer to our climate goals.

Zero-emission battery electric buses are a readily available solution that simultaneously addresses air quality and climate change concerns. At the end of 2017, the global number of electric buses in operation was estimated at 385,000. In the US, more than 1,200 electric buses are on order or have been delivered to 130 transit agencies and the numbers keep growing.  Unfortunately, the MBTA, one of the largest transit agencies in the country, continues to invest in fossil fuel technology. In the last couple of years, the MBTA has procured over 350 diesel-hybrid and natural gas buses, and its recent decision to add another 194 diesel-hybrid buses to its fleet is disappointing at a time when deployment of electric buses is on the rise in the US and worldwide.

And this might not change anytime soon.  Most of MBTA’s current garage facilities are beyond their useful life and not equipped to handle the next generation of bus technologies. The T is working on a facilities plan to modernize and expand its storage and maintenance facilities to meet the future needs of a modern bus fleet. Unless it prioritizes and accelerates the modernization of at least a couple of garage facilities to begin with, a significant percentage of its fleet will remain tied to polluting fossil fuels for over a decade.

The MBTA has taken some initial steps to move to a zero-emission fleet.  They are carrying out a feasibility study to establish a roadmap for a phased transition, with plans to run an electric bus pilot in North Cambridge. Meanwhile, New York City has announced plans to go 100 percent electric with its bus fleet and Los Angeles has ordered over 150 electric buses as part of its commitment to go all-electric by 2030.  Seattle, Portland, Philadelphia, Chicago, Nashville and even smaller cities like Eugene, Oregon; Asheville, North Carolina, and Park City, Utah already have electric buses in service.

Why is the MBTA still buying diesel-hybrid buses when electric buses save transit agencies money and are less expensive to fuel and maintain over their lifetime? While hybrid buses are cleaner than their fossil fuel counterparts, electric buses have no tailpipe emissions and offer the greatest opportunity to reduce toxic air pollution and improve public health. Electric bus technology has become mainstream. Declining battery costs are driving down upfront costs. Bus ranges are increasing. Availability of financing options as well as federal and state funds through the Volkswagen Settlement are further bringing costs down for transit agencies. The MBTA must operate electric buses now, rather than lock itself to 10 or 15 more years of business as usual.

The T should quickly move beyond testing electric buses and lead the way by committing to a phased deployment of zero-emission electric buses in the Greater Boston region, particularly in underserved communities that rely on public transport. The rollout of electric buses should be prioritized on routes serving environmental justice communities like Chelsea, Roxbury, and Dorchester that bear the greatest pollution burden because they are more likely to be located near busy roads and other sources of pollution. In addition, routes in low income neighborhoods often carry the highest volume of passengers most dependent on the T. Operating clean electric buses in these communities will improve their ride experience and reduce exposure to air pollution.

Finally, the MBTA should deploy battery electric buses on existing dedicated bus lanes. With no traffic congestion and predictable time schedules and charging needs, routes on dedicated lanes are the perfect candidates for rapid electrification.

These goals are achievable, and these actions can make a real difference for many people. The economic, environmental, and public health benefits associated with moving toward a zero-emission electric bus fleet will only continue to grow as the technology improves. We cannot wait any longer to scale up investments in electric buses.

Veena Dharmara is the Conservation and Development Program Manager in the Massachusetts Chapter of the Sierra Club. Paola Massoli is associated with the 350 Mass’ Transportation Working Group.