Don’t replace electric trolley buses in N. Cambridge

Why swap out one clean technology for another when need so great

THE MBTA’S BUS  electrification plans, which set a misplaced priority on replacing existing zero-emissions electric trolleybuses in North Cambridge, fail to respond to the urgent need to begin reducing emissions in environmental justice communities.  Rather than make any bang for its investment buck by reducing emissions in communities like Chelsea, East Boston, Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester, the T intends to replace one clean technology with another. This is a far cry from building back better.

MBTA officials try to dress up their misguided plan by pointing to the new electric bus garage capacity coming in Quincy and Arborway, but the Quincy facility won’t be 100 percent electric until more than a year after opening, and the Arborway Garage replacement is not yet funded. The T’s priority seems to be replacing electric trolley buses with electric buses that will need to rely on diesel fuel for heat.

The MBTA has made it no secret that they wish to get rid of the overhead trolley wires in Cambridge, Watertown, Arlington, and Belmont. This is something TransitMatters thinks is a major misstep. Seattle and San Francisco both considered removing overhead wire only to re-invest in the technology in recent years, and many European cities, including Prague, which started to invest heavily in re-wiring its network in 2017, have made overhead wire the basis for electrifying their entire bus network with in-motion charging technology. In-motion charging technology is an incredibly exciting and proven technology that leverages overhead wires to charge batteries while the bus runs under wire to then enable distances of 22 miles off-wire. The MBTA’s current plans squander this opportunity and push back clean buses for EJ communities at the same time.

Meet the Author

Jarred Johnson

CEO and development director, TransitMatters
Transit equity is achieved with money AND prioritization. It’s well and good for the MBTA to point out that the upcoming (unfunded) transformation of the Arborway Garage represents significantly more money than the cost of the North Cambridge Garage transformation, but the energy and financial resources spent replacing zero-emission electric buses with electric buses that likely need diesel heaters is backward, leaving environmental justice communities left waiting for some unfunded and indeterminate future.

It makes no sense from either a decarbonization perspective or an equity perspective to be charging full steam ahead on a plan to replace green buses with green buses while green equipment for routes in EJ communities remain unfunded. The T ought to take the $21 million from the North Cambridge project, purchase additional electric buses for the Quincy garage, and earmark them for routes in the Ashmont and Mattapan neighborhoods. Or it could shift the diesel hybrids it is procuring for the Silver Line tunnel and purchase fully electric in-motion charging buses to serve East Boston and Chelsea. Or it could accelerate planning and design for the Arborway garage. The T has options regarding how to spend its resources wisely and equitably. It just needs to make a policy commitment to redirect its efforts to put EJ communities first.

Jarred Johnson is CEO of TransitMatters.