Metro is aiming to have its fleet of buses entirely electric by 2045. The transit agency would stop buying diesel-only buses soon and transition to hybrid-electric or compressed natural gas models only before switching to electric-only models in 2030.
A committee gave preliminary approval to the plan at its Thursday meeting and the full board will vote on it later this month.
It’s a big step for the largest transit agency in the region that has lagged behind other local bus operators like D.C.’s Circulator, Alexandria’s DASH and Montgomery County’s Ride On, when it comes to trying out and transitioning to electric buses. Those agencies combined have more than two dozen of the 500 electric buses running nationwide. Metro has one.
Nationwide, Los Angeles’ transit authority plans to electrify its 2,320 buses by 2028, San Francisco plans to do so by 2035, while Chicago, Seattle, and New York City have 2040 electrification targets.
Last October, the Sierra Club and 17 other environmental groups challenged WMATA to adopt a plan to go electric by 2045, keeping in line with the Clean Energy D.C. Act’s deadline for 100-percent, zero-emission vehicles.
Transitioning to electric buses would mean cleaner air and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, plus quieter vehicles with less vibration, meaning more passenger comfort. It would also reduce the use of fossil fuels and decrease fuel costs.
But Metro says electric buses cost more at the moment and have not yet demonstrated consistent reliability on par with conventional vehicles, nor can they go as far on a single charge as regular buses can on a tank of diesel.
The plan includes a 2023 pilot program operating out of Metro’s Shepherd Parkway garage to test 10 electric buses and two longer, articulated electric buses on regular routes. After that, the agency would create a list of specifications for its first large purchase of electric buses and hire staff to manage the fleet. Then Metro will also have to work to make sure garages have enough electricity and charging equipment to charge and store electric buses.
The whole package is estimated to cost $900 million to a billion dollars.
Metro says it will continue to evaluate the plan as bus technology evolves, even possibly looking at hydrogen cell technology.
The board was generally supportive of the plan, with some even saying Metro should move the program faster. Others were more cautious. Matt Letourneau of Virginia says bus technology is still evolving and if the new buses don’t meet Metro’s needs, he said the board should reexamine the issue.
Metro has 1,600 buses (diesel, compressed natural gas, diesel-electric hybrids, and one, yes just one, electric bus) over 10 different garages. Metro plans to buy 100 new buses each year.
Devin Rouse, a federal representative on the board, says Metro should be a leader in this area but worried about balancing Metro’s needs.
“Are we setting ourselves up to succeed?” he asked. “The number one thing that stood out to me, vehicle procurements, is easy to understand, but it’s much less sexy to talk about the infrastructure and what needs to happen behind the scenes. That’s the longest pole in the tent.”
He said without the infrastructure for charging, Metro would have vehicles on their hands that they couldn’t run. He cited concerns about load capacity during a hot summer day trying to charge dozens of buses while everyone is also running air conditioner in their homes.
A Metro garage would need 9 megawatts of high-capacity electric connection to support 150 buses in a garage — and so far no garage has that. That amount of electricity is the equivalent needed to power 6,000 homes.
Metro would also have to retrain a maintenance workforce to work on electric buses.
“The goals are certainly something we need to establish, but we need to figure out how we’re going to execute them,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Metro Bus Electrification Coalition made up of the Sierra Club, other groups, and elected officials applauded the adoption of the plan but did have critiques.
They say Metro’s plan does not meet the D.C. energy law’s requirement of 50% zero-emission vehicles no later than 2030. They urged Metro to stop buying fossil fuel buses by no later than 2025.
“If Metro commits to electrify its bus fleet by 2045, it would be an important first step,” said Lucas Godshalk, co-chair of the clean transportation committee at the Sierra Club’s Washington, D.C., chapter. “But a far more important deadline for Metro is reaching 50% electrification by 2030, which coincides with the Biden administration’s goal of cutting carbon emissions in half by the end of this decade.
“Doing so would help avert the worst impacts of climate change, not to mention take hundreds of polluting fossil fuel buses off our streets.”
A 2020 Sierra Club report found that electrifying Metro’s buses would “save the agency hundreds of millions of dollars in lifetime bus operating and maintenance costs, slash annual carbon pollution by more than 58,000 tons by 2030, and dramatically reduce the toll toxic air pollution has on the region’s most vulnerable residents.”
The coalition also disagrees with Metro’s idea to buy lower-emission CNG buses. Metro plans to increase the percentage of CNG buses in its fleet from about a third to roughly half and spend $5.3 million on a new CNG fueling facility, the group says.
“Carbon pollution from CNG buses, which emit methane and smog-forming nitrogen oxides, is only 12 percent lower than that of conventional diesel buses, according to a Union of Concerned Scientists analysis,” the coalition said, in a press release. “(They) also found that battery-electric buses would have 70% lower lifecycle carbon emissions than diesel buses, 65% lower than CNG buses, and 60% lower than diesel-electric hybrids in the Washington metro area.”
Others, including transit advocate and developer of the MetroHero app, James Pizzurro says environmentalist should focus on more pressing issues in the here and now.
“More buses running more frequently to get more people out of their cars more often is the solution here,” he tweeted. “Solutions that sound the most environmentally-friendly are not always the solutions that maximize environmental benefit.”
Bus trips emit 25% less per mile compared to single-occupancy vehicles while rail trips emit 65% less per mile compared to a single-occupancy car.