Public-private partnerships could finance new bus garages

New facilities could spur adoption of battery-powered vehicles

ON AN AVERAGE WEEKDAY, the MBTA bus system moves about 400,000 people—that’s one-third of the MBTA’s total ridership. The T’s bus system is essential to maintaining our region’s economic growth, ensuring equity, and combatting climate change.

As we strive to address our worst-in-the-nation roadway congestion and endeavor to meet aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals like the city of Boston’s aim to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, we must expand and enhance bus service to provide viable alternatives to driving. First, we must replace each of the T’s existing nine dilapidated bus maintenance facilities and increase total capacity. In addition, we must plan for a move away from the diesel-fueled technologies still purchased today to pursue the zero-emission technologies of tomorrow—like battery electric bus (BEB) technology.

The T’s bus maintenance facilities average 50 years of heavy service, with several built while Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. After too many decades of insufficient upkeep, the MBTA’s Fiscal Management and Control Board deserves credit for daylighting this issue. The T says $875 million is needed to replace these facilities over the next decade, yet MassDOT’s capital plan allocates just $100 million.

MassDOT, the MBTA, and several of the state’s regional transit authorities are currently evaluating the feasibility of large-scale BEB deployment. Worcester’s RTA has operated six BEBs since 2014, with the RTA on Martha’s Vineyard going all BEB in 2018. The MBTA recently acquired five, 60-foot articulated BEBs, allowing it to explore operational capabilities of this emergent technology on the Silver Line.

Presently, the MBTA parks most of its buses in outdoor and uncovered lots. BEB know-how has rapidly advanced over the past decade, but the technology is not free of technical challenges, in particular poorer performance during cold and extremely hot days. For the MBTA, the apparent need for indoor BEB maintenance, storage, and charging facilities poses additional funding challenges on top of the need to replace and expand its existing system of aged bus maintenance centers.

Given the MBTA’s well-documented financial constraints, A Better City recently published a case study exploring the potential for public-private partnerships to advance bus facility modernization to support BEB deployment.

A Better City’s study focused on the MBTA Albany Street bus garage in the South End, a facility built in 1941 that, like other facilities, lacks the adequate roof clearances, indoor storage space, and design features needed to accommodate BEBs. In its present form, the facility is limited to servicing conventional diesel-powered buses. BEB fleets, however, have significant electrical infrastructure requirements that include electrical substations, high ceilings, and specific configurations to accommodate bus washing. Additionally, feedback from peer agencies across the country highlights the need for maintenance facilities with ample indoor storage/parking for at least 100 vehicles. Given the BEB facility requirements, the Albany Street garage would necessarily require a new facility, with an initial estimated cost of $92 million for adequate BEB indoor storage, electrification, and maintenance infrastructure.

Accordingly, the case study was built around a simple question: Could a cost-effective public-private partnership support a new BEB facility and appropriate commercial development to provide a unique and mutually beneficial outcome? Quite possibly, based on a 425,000 square-foot mixed-use real estate design concept that includes two stories of retail space, 225,000 square feet of residential space, a new intermodal transit hub, and nearly 200,000 square feet of space for bus maintenance, indoor storage, electric infrastructure, and employee parking.

The study’s initial results indicate that a public-private partnership model is indeed a viable concept that warrants further examination. The Albany Street maintenance facility is desirable among the real estate development community, while also presenting a clear opportunity to maximize land use and air rights as a means of significantly reducing the cost of a new BEB facility. Additionally, the South End would benefit from improved transit by way of the intermodal hub, a key point in light of the lack of substantial transportation options in this historic yet now burgeoning neighborhood.

Meet the Author

Glen Berkowitz

Project manager, A Better City
If nothing else, A Better City’s case study showcases the potential value of the public-private partnership model to the Commonwealth and merits additional study. The case study is intended to demonstrate the viability of a novel new use of the public-private partnership model. This model could be adapted to any number of potential locations among the MBTA’s real estate portfolio and at other RTAs across the Commonwealth.  By unlocking the power of public-private partnerships, Massachusetts will surely be suitably positioned to take on the complex and difficult decisions associated with climate change and powering the future of vital bus transit services—and succeed.

Glen Berkowitz is project manager at A Better City.