Commentary

As Congress bankrolls electric conversion for bus fleets, is Virginia ready?

June 8, 2022 12:03 am

U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Norfolk, delivering a $5 million check to Hampton Roads Transit. (Andria McClellan)

Of the more than 2,168 buses operated by public transportation providers in Virginia, roughly just one percent run on electricity.  Beyond the 26 battery electric buses currently in service, the remainder of the commonwealth’s fleet of transit buses rely on fossil fuels with over half dependent on dirty diesel.  Thanks to a strategic study by the state and a tremendous tranche of federal funding, the number of Virginia’ battery electric buses is set to more than double this year, but real questions remain as to how fast the commonwealth can go all electric.

Billions for battery electric buses

Recently when U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Norfolk visited an obsolete bus operations and maintenance depot in Virginia Beach, she handed over a supersized check of $5 million to Hampton Roads Transit to upgrade that facility.  Once the new depot is completed in 2025, it will accommodate over 100 buses and 14 seasonal trollies, reduce deadhead miles by 62,000 per year and play a pivotal role in HRT’s plans to electrify its bus fleet.

Public transit contributes just 0.3 percent of the commonwealth’s carbon emissions according to the Department of Rail and Public Transportation, but with most fleet decisions firmly under the government’s influence — if not direct purview — the issue has become a priority for Democratic lawmakers looking to show that a more climate-friendly future is not only possible but well worth the initial investment.  Although the Transit Transition Fund and Program bill by state Senator Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond died in the House this year, the push for all-electric buses has been turbo-charged by federal efforts.

Thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, this year the Federal Transit Administration’s Low or No Emission Vehicle Program will go from just $1.5 million in annual funding (not enough for one bus) to $1.5 billion.  Over the next five years that program is set to distribute $5.5 billion to assist local transit agencies in purchasing low-or-no emission vehicles, equipment and facilities.

“Prioritizing and investing in electric buses will not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions but will also significantly lower long-term fuel and maintenance costs for localities, saving taxpayer dollars that can be invested back into public infrastructure projects,” said Luria.  “Bus electrification is just one of the many ways that we can lower emissions and costs while improving public transportation services and reducing congestion on the roadway.”

Conversion concerns

Replacing just one diesel transit vehicle with a battery electric bus can prevent over 300,000 pounds of greenhouse gasses being emitted into the atmosphere each year.  Zero tailpipe emissions are also a huge win for local air quality and public health outcomes, particularly by reducing the rate of respiratory illnesses.  Lower fuel and maintenance costs also present strong incentives for public transit providers to electrify.  Riders even report electric buses offer a smoother, quieter commute.

With fantastic sums of federal funding up for grabs and a litany of battery electric benefits, the transition to zero-emission buses would appear to be a no-brainer; however, such a huge shift in vehicles’ fuel sources doesn’t come without concerns.  

“It’s not like you can just buy an electric bus and replace a diesel bus,” said Grant Sparks, the director of transit planning for DRPT. “Transit providers need to understand that there’s an impact to scheduling, to staffing and to the layout of the maintenance facility. The biggest issue right now holding a lot of agencies back is battery range.”

America’s first battery electric buses came onto the market about a decade ago.  Since most transit vehicles are expected to serve passengers for 12 years, that means many electric buses have yet to go through an entire life cycle for transit providers to be able to evaluate their full lifespan of performance.

“Where there is a lot of scrutiny on the electric bus industry is the question of whether those batteries can last 12 years or will they need to be replaced midway through the life cycle,” Sparks said.  “That would add an additional cost to the maintenance of EV buses, and there’s not a ton of data out there on that.”

A diesel bus with a full tank of fuel can run 20 hours straight. Today, battery electric buses can’t surpass 200 miles per day without extensive on-route charging throughout their shift. The overhead chargers needed to quickly refill bus batteries currently cost a half a million dollars each, making such rapid recharging prohibitively expensive. Add in difficulties with hilly terrain and colder climes and transit agencies’ hesitation to transition to all-electric buses suddenly makes more sense.

As the first agency in Virginia to purchase electric buses, HRT had its fair share of growing pains. Initially its six battery electric buses couldn’t be deployed in Hampton or Newport News due to the lack of a grid strong enough to accommodate charging on the Upper Peninsula.  The buses’ winter performance proved an even worse fiasco. Lacking experience with battery buses which don’t naturally produce heat from the engine, HRT staff didn’t know they needed to order an additional heating package.

“EV buses don’t do a good job of heating, so some of our vehicles had internal temperatures of 55 degrees during winter months,” explained Andria McClellan, the board chair of HRT.  “Our electric buses are quiet and clean, but we found out over that first winter their typical 225-mile range on full charge went down to 100 miles because operators had to blast the heat to keep passengers warm.”

The fleet of the future

HRT’s rocky road to successful battery electric bus deployment hasn’t deterred other agencies looking to cut emissions and reduce their operating costs. The lessons learned in Hampton Roads actually helped Alexandria’s DASH bus system prepare for their own aggressive electrification efforts.

“We knew that there would be deployment issues with charging,” said Raymund Mui, assistant general manager of DASH. “We were expecting reduced range in the winter.  We knew that heat would no longer be a natural byproduct of propulsion, so we would need to plan for it.  Those weren’t things that derailed our efforts because we were expecting those weaknesses and able to account for them.”

Up until 2017 DASH’s fleet was all diesel. Over the last five years Alexandria’s transit agency has become the state leader on electrification with over 14 battery-powered buses. The city has set a goal of purchasing nothing but zero-emission buses by 2027. With so much federal funding flowing, Mui hopes DASH can purge its fleet of fossil fuels by 2035 at the latest.

To expedite their efforts, DASH has split its procurement of battery electric buses and chargers evenly across America’s two largest manufacturers: Proterra and New Flyer. By testing out equipment from both companies, Mui expects his agency will be able to teach other transit providers across the commonwealth about how to electrify their fleets right. Huge questions around charging and grid capacity remain; however, DASH’s pragmatic approach to problem solving instills confidence. “Conceptually all these are are giant electric golf carts,” Mui said.

DRPT plans to kick off an in-depth transit electrification study later this year that will undergird such agency efforts and may even lay out a statewide goal; however, one chapter of the agency’s Transit Equity and Modernization Study provided initial findings on the topic that were presented to the Commonwealth Transportation Board in April.

Fully electrifying Virginia’s public transportation fleets by 2045 would cost $800 million for the vehicles themselves and another $300 million for the charging infrastructure. That $1.1 billion price tag may sound steep, but with Congress providing states, localities, and transit providers $5.5 billion for battery electric buses over the next five years, there’s no time better than the current moment to find the funding for electrification, according to Sparks.

His advice to Virginia’s dozens of public transit providers interested in purchasing battery-powered buses? “Essentially let Uncle Sam pay for your electrification efforts and save yourself from spending any local or state funding on this.”

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct the increase in the Federal Transit Administration’s Low or No Emission Vehicle Program. It will go from just $1.5 million in annual funding to $1.5 billion. 

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Wyatt Gordon
Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon covers transportation, housing, and land use for the Mercury through a grant from the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The Mercury retains full editorial control. Wyatt is a born-and-raised Richmonder with a master’s in urban planning from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and a bachelor’s in international political economy from the American University in Washington, D.C. Most recently he covered transportation as Greater Greater Washington’s Virginia correspondent. Previously he’s written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Honolulu Civil Beat, Style Weekly and RVA Magazine. He also works as a policy manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network. Contact him at [email protected]

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