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Metro is phasing out diesel-powered buses, with plans to transform its fleet to electric by 2045

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 6/24/2021 Justin George
a group of people standing in front of a store: Metro riders board a bus along 14th Street NW on Tuesday, Dec. 1 in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post) © Matt McClain/The Washington Post Metro riders board a bus along 14th Street NW on Tuesday, Dec. 1 in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Metro will phase in an electric-powered bus fleet over more than two decades under a plan the transit agency’s board of directors approved Thursday.

The plan shifts the agency’s annual purchase of buses away from those powered by natural gas and diesel. Metro will add electric buses each year starting in 2023, then will phase out purchasing nonelectric buses by 2030. Its entire fleet will be composed of electric-powered or other nonpolluting buses by 2045.

The plan allows for other types of buses, but only if they don’t create emissions.

The move is a shift for a transit agency that has one electric bus in its fleet, but comes as the Biden administration has prioritized improving and modernizing transit nationwide. A bipartisan infrastructure agreement reached Thursday includes $7.5 billion for electric buses, with momentum from Washington prompting transit leaders to move ahead with service improvements.

Metro Board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg said the influence of regional transit systems that already have pledged to convert their fleets and the desire of elected officials to battle climate change more aggressively contributed to Metro’s decision.

“It was just a whole bunch of things that just sort of came together to really highlight the issue, push the issue,” Smedberg said in an interview.

Critics contend that the plan moves too slowly, but transit officials said Metro needs time to find and allocate billions of dollars for the conversion.

Metro board member Lucinda Babers, the District’s deputy mayor for operations and infrastructure, addressed disappointed residents who wanted Metro to move on a more aggressive timetable, saying she supported the plan because the agency can speed up the transformation as it builds infrastructure.

“I know many of them are disappointed because it doesn’t go far enough,” she said. “There is nothing in this resolution that prevents us from moving quicker.”

Metro has considered electrifying its 1,500-bus fleet in recent years, pledging on Earth Day 2019 to test electric buses as part of a wide-ranging energy plan. The agency is scheduled to acquire 12 electric buses in mid-2022 as part of a pilot. Last year, environmental advocates and some local leaders began pushing Metro to commit to dates and benchmarks for the conversion to electric buses.

Metro Board considers Metrobus fleet transformation to electric

Public transit agencies have shifted away from fossil fuels over the past two decades. In 1998, the American Public Transportation Association estimated that fewer than 7 percent of buses used an alternative to diesel. In 2018, nearly 60 percent of buses used alternative sources, including diesel-electric hybrids or compressed natural gas.

Electric buses still make up a tiny portion of the nation’s public transportation fleet.

About 1,000 electric-powered buses are in service nationally out of 72,700 public buses in the United States, said American Public Transportation Association spokesman Chad Chitwood. Nearly 19 percent of the nation’s buses are hybrids powered in part by electricity.

Metro board members have worried about whether electric buses can match the performance of gas and hybrid buses, while also expressing concern about the expense of charging stations and the buses themselves, which can cost as much as double what buses cost now.

Several residents on Thursday said those costs would only rise if Metro postpones making the electric-only switch.

“While the expense may seem high now, putting off the task of improving our communities will only increase the costs, both in resources and lives,” Montgomery County resident Ivan Makfinksy told board members.

Metro’s buses run on compressed natural gas and diesel, while hybrids run on a combination of diesel and electricity. The transit agency buys 100 new buses annually to replace aging vehicles, which reach the end of their useful life after 15 years, according to Metro.

Metro lags behind other big transit systems in converting its bus fleet to electric, Sierra Club report says

A recent Pew Research Center poll showed two-thirds of people think electric vehicles are better for the environment. But while such vehicles are growing in popularity, Americans are split on the idea of phasing out gas-powered cars and trucks by 2035, according to the poll, with cost viewed as the main sticking point.

Metro board members, who have spent recent weeks looking to boost fare revenue and persuade more riders to return to transit, shared the same concerns Thursday. Gas-powered buses from New Flyer of America, a builder of Metrobuses, start at $450,000, while electric versions start at $700,000. Building charging stations, retrofitting garages to accommodate electric buses and the energy costs to fuel the vehicles are other higher costs that officials said they needed to consider.

According to the Sierra Club, which has urged Metro to make the move to electric, the lifetime cost of an electric bus is $1.12 million, at least $150,000 less than diesel, compressed natural gas and hybrid buses. Those costs factor in the purchase price, fuel, maintenance and operating expenses, the group said.

Other concerns, environmental advocates say, are outweighed by long-term health benefits for bus operators, passengers and urban neighborhoods that come from reducing pollution.

The Metro Electric Bus Coalition, a group of 26 organizations that includes the Audubon Naturalist Society, Sierra Club and Greenpeace USA, said Metro lags behind other major transit agencies in converting its fleet.

“The fact that we are facing a climate crisis and our region has a major smog problem should be enough for Metro to move quickly to electrify its bus fleet,” Elliott Negin, a clean-bus advocate at coalition member Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement.

The D.C. Circulator and the DASH bus system in Alexandria have committed to converting their fleets at least a decade sooner than Metro. The bus coalition also said several large transit agencies across the country have more aggressive timelines, including the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and the main transit systems of Chicago, Seattle and New York.

From the archives: D.C. Circulator considers electric buses

While Metro’s goal to convert its entire fleet by 2045 meets the Clean Energy D.C. Act’s target for zero-emission city-owned vehicles — which also includes public buses, taxis, limousines and private fleets with more than 50 vehicles — it would fall short of meeting the city law’s benchmark of having at least half its fleet converted by 2030.

In a letter to the Metro board dated Wednesday, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said the agency’s transition plan is too slow. Under Metro’s proposed timetable, 18 percent of its fleet would be electric in nine years, according to Metro Electric Bus Coalition estimates.

Metro will begin buying electric buses in the fiscal year that begins in summer 2023. The plan’s pace is meant to give the agency time to add charging stations and other infrastructure but also quicken as technology improves the performance of electric buses.

Metro board member Michael Goldman, who represents Maryland, abstained from the vote, saying the transit agency should switch completely to electric-bus purchases starting next year.

“If we don’t set ambitious goals, we will always be the laggard and not the leader in the region,” he said. “I think Metro should do better.”

Other board members approved of the pace, saying it will take time to find money and build charging stations, garages and other infrastructure for such a major conversion. Board member and Loudoun County Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) said a transit agency the size of Metro “can’t turn on a dime.”

The meeting also was the last for two of the board’s most vocal members: Goldman and Stephanie Gidigbi-Jenkins, a District representative.

Goldman, whose term is up at the end of the month, has served on the board since June 2013. He regularly questioned Metro’s proposals and goals, often coming up with counterproposals. He will be replaced by Donald G. Drummer, a Prince George’s County resident and solar energy entrepreneur who retired as a senior executive with the Federal Aviation Administration and as an Army colonel.

Gidigbi-Jenkins, who prioritized improving bus service, was appointed 18 months ago to finish out the term of former Metro board member Jack Evans, who resigned in 2019 after an ethics scandal. She said she did not seek reappointment but had planned on stepping down at the end of the month.

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