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Cost and Space Deters Merrimack Valley Transit Switch to EVs

Despite the national push towards electric vehicles, the Massachusetts regional transit authority has no immediate plans to transition its 69 buses to electric alternatives. One EV bus is almost double the price of a diesel bus.

(TNS) — The future of transit buses, nationwide, looks to be one grounded in electric power.

But, in Massachusetts, the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority's 69-bus fleet remains firmly anchored to diesel fuel for cost, bus range and space reasons, and change isn't coming anytime soon.

Some say now is the time to convert to battery electric fleets and reduce global warming while also safeguarding the respiratory health of drivers, passengers and others along bus routes.

On Monday at the transit authority's 7-acre yard near the Bradford rail station, MVRTA Administrator Noah Berger said the fleet — including nine hybrid diesel/electric buses — run on clean biodiesel fuel.

He stresses the word "clean" to distinguish it from the black, heavy exhaust that was spewed by diesel buses decades ago.

Still, clean or not, diesel fuel emits carbon dioxide, a main culprit in the greenhouse effect warming the globe, and fine particulates that are hazardous to people's health, says Staci Rubin, vice president of environmental justice for the Conservation Law Foundation.

"We have no time to waste to get our fleets all electric," Rubin said in a phone interview.

The CLF, which advocates for the health of historically marginalized people, supports a Massachusetts bill that would require the state's 15 regional transit authorities to operate all electric bus fleets by 2035.

Rubin said the state's regional transit organizations should start buying electric buses and updating maintenance facilities to support them now.

The transportation sector — cars, planes, trains, buses — contributes the largest share of greenhouse gases, 29 percent, in the United States, which trails only China on top of the list of countries that emit the most CO2.

Here in the cramped MVRTA yard the fleet's buses — most of which are 35 feet long and carry about 35 passengers — get washed, fueled, maintained and even rebuilt.

There are no fully electric buses here.

One electric bus costs about $1 million, almost twice as much as the $550,000 the MVRTA spends on a diesel bus.

Furthermore, the Valley, with its cold weather months and hills, would tax the range that a battery powered electric bus could travel before it needed another charge, Berger said.

In parts of the country where the temperature drops and elevation climbs, electric buses have encountered mechanical issues that have knocked carriers out of service.

Rubin, however, argues that battery technology has rapidly advanced and that earlier problems have largely been addressed.

Electric buses have a range of more than 100 miles, she said.

Berger says the MVRTA must devote its limited resources to best meet the needs of riders, those who rely on public transportation to get to work, medical appointments, pharmacies, grocery stores and school.

Rubin says people's health has been ignored for too long.

In a non-COVID year the MVRTA serves 2 million riders on its 24 routes and the Boston commuter line. Fares on the bus organization's 24 routes will be free for the next two years.

The MVRTA's FY22 operating budget is $19.4 million, of which $6.9 million is federal ( Federal Transit Administration); $7.6 million is state (MassDOT); $4.8 million comes from local assessments to 16 cities and towns; and the balance comes from parking revenue, advertising on buses and shelters, and ( Boston) commuter bus fares, said Berger.

Tony Komornick is transportation program manager for the Merrimack Valley Regional Planning Commission, which helps the transit authority secure funding.

Komornick said the switch to electric buses is dependent on how quickly the technology advances.

"If the range of these buses increases and if the funding is there to transform bus yards from fueling to charging locations the changes will come," he said.

Also, he said charging locations need to be available at alternate sites.

Berger says the ability to expand the yard is limited, at least to the north, where the Merrimack River runs hard against the property.

In fact, the transit authority is shoring up the river bank where erosion threatens to claim at least one storage building.

The gated bus yard is a little city within a city. It's where all those bus maintenance services happen and the administrative offices are located.

The MVRTA's big neighbor to the east, the Boston MBTA, has set a goal of reaching a 100 percent electric bus fleet by 2040.

Today, only 3 percent of the MBTA's 1,100 buses are electric battery powered, but it plans to step up its purchases rapidly, reaching 30 percent electric by 2027 and 50 percent by 2030, according to the MBTA.

Meanwhile, the MVRTA does have nine hybrid buses, a combination diesel/electric bus equivalent of a hybrid Toyota Prius.

The buses' rooftop battery packs charge internally through the drive cycle.

Mechanics at the MVRTA are less than enthusiastic about the hybrids given their limited battery life.

The hybrid diesel electric buses, at $750,000, cost $200,000 more than the diesels.

The hybrids get 7 miles to the gallon, as opposed to the 6 miles a diesel gets.

The MVRTA's newest buses are diesels. The transit authority accepted delivery of nine 2021 diesel models this year.

They will be put in service as older buses are retired, Berger said. The transit authority likes to get 15 years out of a bus, he said.

Berger came aboard the MVRTA in August. He said expanded public transportation, in and of itself, benefits the environment.

Lawrence Conservation Commission Chairman Tennis Lilly concurs.

Public transit results in fewer vehicles on the road, reducing air pollution, greenhouse gases and the number of accidents.

(c)2022 The Eagle-Tribune (North Andover, Mass.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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