Use VW settlement to electrify bus fleet

Deadline for applying for funds is fast approaching

IMAGINE WALKING down a city street and being able to take a deep breath without inhaling tailpipe exhaust left and right from cars, buses, and trucks. If you live in a car-congested area, the experience of being surrounded by tailpipe emissions from gas-guzzling and greenhouse gas-emitting, toxin-spewing vehicles is so much a part of your everyday experience that it’s difficult to imagine an alternative. But as our cities grow, we must envision the alternative and do everything we can to make it our reality.

Investing in electric buses is one of the bold policy actions needed to address our massive transportation pollution problem. Our transit agencies are key vehicles for Massachusetts to invest in a future where our communities are equipped with accessible and affordable clean transportation. What does that look like? Buses that don’t pollute our air, routes that reach all communities, and fares that everyone can pay.

Emissions from the transportation sector—the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in Massachusetts and nationwide—pollute the air in car-congested cities across the nation, cities that are only getting increasingly more crowded. Population projections have anywhere between 40,000 to 80,000 more people calling Boston home by 2030, and a whopping 600,000 new residents in Massachusetts in general by 2040.  A state report released at the end of 2018 identified climate change and congestion as the two main concerns facing the Bay State over the next 20 years.  To make our growing cities, state, and region more resilient over the next decade, investing in clean public transportation has to be a priority.

The opportunity to change course is here. One of the biggest barriers to widespread adoption of electric buses and a clean transportation future is the higher upfront cost of the buses. But millions of dollars of Volkswagen settlement money, from the automaker’s emissions cheating scandal, is now available. Massachusetts has received $75 million of that pie, and the deadline for transit agencies to apply for a portion of these grants is coming up.

While electric buses help save our climate and our lungs, they also save transit agencies—and taxpayers—money. Compared to buses that run on diesel and compressed fracked gas, electric buses—with few working parts—cost hundreds of thousands of dollars less to fuel and maintain. There are a variety of bills before the Legislature this session calling for the electrification of bus and transit fleets given the cost, public health, and environmental benefits of electrification.

Thirteen percent of all US transit agencies have electric transit buses in their fleets or on order. The Los Angeles Metro has committed to an all-electric bus fleet by 2030, with a state-wide commitment for California by 2040. New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority has committed to all electric buses by 2040. In line with these coast to coast city commitments, over 100 small businesses in Boston signed a letter last September in support of an all-electric transit bus fleet by 2030.

As progress on clean air and energy is rolled back or proposed to be rolled back on the federal front, Massachusetts transit agencies and policymakers have an opportunity and responsibility to move forward with cleaning up our air. The acknowledgement that we have a transportation problem from policymakers exists.  At the United States Conference of Mayors in 2017, more than 250 mayors, including eight from Massachusetts, voted to support the quick electrification of the transportation sector.  Recommendations in the recent Governor’s Commission on Future of Transportation report include prioritizing investments in public transit, providing better mobility options in rural communities, and establishing a goal that all new vehicles sold in Massachusetts will be electric by 2040.

Meet the Author

Christine P. Barber

State representative, Somerville
Meet the Author

Jonathan Hecht

State representative, Watertown
Meet the Author

Maria Robinson

State representative, Framingham
Meet the Author

David Rogers

State representative, Cambridge
The vision for how to move forward to address our transportation needs, on a state and local level, exists. And now, so does the money to start electrification of our public transit bus fleet. It’s time for the state’s transit agencies to be the bold leaders to bring more electric buses to Massachusetts roads.

Christine Barber, Jonathan Hecht, Maria Robinson, and David Rogers are state representatives from Somerville, Watertown, Framingham, and Cambridge.