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Transit officials in San Diego are rolling out a new $12.5 million pilot program to test the region’s first electric buses.
Right now, the Metropolitan Transit System fuels its fleet with compressed natural gas. But by November, riders may find themselves hopping onto one of the agency’s new battery-powered buses.
MTS has six of the electric buses, with another two on the way. It also plans to order two fuel cell-powered buses.
Officials are planning to test the green-painted vehicles on city streets over the next few weeks before putting them into service on routes 1, 2, 4, 10, 13, 815, 905 and 936.
The move comes as California has placed new zero-emission bus requirements on transit agencies, rules aimed at eliminating all greenhouse-gas emissions from public transit fleets by 2040.
Specifically, 25% of all buses purchased by large transit agencies, such as MTS, must run on electricity or fuel cells starting in 2023.
That mandate — put in place by the California Air Resources Board last December — increases to 50% in 2026 and then to 100% in 2029.
Meeting those targets may prove challenging for MTS, which operates on a tight $300 million annual budget. Every year, the agency replaces about 50 of its roughly 600 heavy-duty buses, according to officials.
“Through this pilot program, we’re trying to figure out how to maintain the same level and quality of service while dealing with the regulation at hand,” said Mike Wygant, chief operating officer in charge of the bus fleet for MTS.
MTS currently pays about $530,000 for a natural gas-powered bus with a range of more than 300 miles.
However, the new all-electric buses cost around $900,000 apiece, and they only run for about 150 miles on a six-hour charge. The agency also has to invest in charging stations and prepare for what could eventually be a burdensome utility bill.
As part of the pilot program, MTS has installed six charging stations on its property in downtown San Diego at a cost of more than $60,000 each, according to officials.
“The easiest thing to do would be to replace one combustion vehicle with two battery electrics, but that would be very costly,” Wygant said.
Over the next 18 months, Wygant’s team will evaluate the performance of the electric buses and prepare a plan for meeting California’s targets. The blueprint, known as a Zero Emission Bus Rollout Plan, is required to be turned in to the air board by July 2020.
MTS CEO Paul Jablonski has been one of the leading voices in the state urging air board officials to consider the fiscal implications of the purchasing requirement for transit agencies.
“Taking all the cost increases into consideration, he did want the whole industry to fully consider the impact it would have,” said Rob Schupp, MTS spokesman. “Service is the No. 1 priority for any transit agency.”
In response to such concerns, the air board has taken several steps to prevent disruptions in service as the result of its new rules. Transit agencies, for example, can request a yearlong exemption based on financial hardship, delays in bus deliveries and the unavailability of vehicles with sufficient range to meet an agency’s daily needs.
“The board recognized that each transit agency is unique with their own individual needs,” said David Clegern, spokesman for the air board. “Therefore, the adopted regulation includes exemptions that will ensure no transit service cut or fare increase.”
MTS’ pilot program is being paid for with a combination of state grants, Cap-and-Trade funding and agency funding.
San Diego’s efforts to acquire electric buses mirror what appears to be a national trend. The nonprofit CalStart recently reported that zero-emission bus fleets have increased 37% over the last year, with 2,255 such vehicles now in states across the country.
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