Mass. needs to move much faster on electric buses

$75m from VW settlement could accelerate transition

MASSACHUSETTS HAS AN AIR POLLUTION problem, specifically a diesel pollution problem. Our state has the highest health risk from diesel soot in New England. The Environmental Protection Agency’s recent rollback of automobile emission and efficiency standards will worsen air quality and significantly impact public health. Diesel exhaust pollution carries a cancer risk three times higher than the total cancer risk from all other 181 air toxins combined as tracked by the EPA. The asthma rate in certain schools in Massachusetts exceeds 20 percent, and air pollution has been linked to increased risk of lung cancer, heart disease, bronchitis, strokes, diabetes, and other respiratory complications of Commonwealth residents.

This is why as mayors we are excited about the prospect of transitioning our transit fleets to electric buses. Battery electric buses emit no tailpipe emissions, and provide significant reductions in nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter emissions. Zero emission electric buses benefit public health—especially in low income and communities of color that bear the brunt of air pollution-related health risks. They also reduce carbon pollution that is contributing to climate change. Because electric buses use electricity to power a battery, there’s no diesel used, no dirty oil changes, no internal combustion engine, and no dirty exhaust.

Cities around the country are taking the lead when it comes to transitioning to electric buses. The Los Angeles Metro recently approved a plan to transition its fleet of over 2,200 buses to electric by 2030. Seattle will be adding 120 electric buses over three years, Philadelphia announced it will add 25 electric buses to its fleet, and even smaller cities such as Eugene, Oregon, have committed to 10 electric buses. Last year, mayors of 12 cities including Vancouver, Paris, Milan, London, and Cape Town pledged to procure only zero emission buses starting in 2025.

Massachusetts has a total of nine zero emission electric buses in operation, six in Worcester and three in Springfield. Last year, Martha’s Vineyard transit agency announced plans to transition to an all-electric bus fleet. But more needs to be done, and fast. The state must use the $75 million in funding available to the Commonwealth through the Volkswagen settlement to offset the higher upfront cost of procuring electric buses and accelerate this transition.

Electric vehicle technology has already established a strong footing in mass transit. To cut down on dangerous diesel exhaust and climate emissions, Massachusetts must speed up the deployment of electric buses and commit to have 100 percent of new bus purchases as electric by 2030. Investment in electric buses will both expand public access to clean transportation and increase the visibility of electric vehicles. By transitioning vehicle fleets to electricity by 2050, Massachusetts will yield $2.9 billion in health and climate savings.

Zero emission electric buses are not only good for our health and our climate, but they make sound financial sense for our Commonwealth. Because of reduced fueling and maintenance costs, the state can save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year powering each electric bus rather than buying fossil fuels in the form of diesel or compressed natural gas.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
At a time when roll backs of climate policy are underway at the federal level, the Commonwealth must show leadership to protect the public health of its residents. In addition, if Massachusetts wants to reach its goal to reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050, a transition of transportation away from petroleum-based fuels must be central to the strategy. Electrifying our transit system will lead to environmental, social, and economic benefits for residents of the Commonwealth. Transportation pollution doesn’t have to be a problem. To protect the health of our residents and address the impacts of climate change, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation must lead the way to advance the deployment of zero emission electric buses across the state.

Stephanie Burke is the mayor of Medford and David Narkewicz is mayor of Northampton and chair of the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority Advisory Board.