MBTA in no big rush on electrification

The MBTA is pushing ahead with electrification, but on its own terms.

Transit advocates, climate activists, and many lawmakers are pushing the T to ditch its diesel buses and quickly embrace battery electric buses. They are also pressing the transit authority to start electrifying commuter rail lines, particularly those running through environmental justice communities, and to scrap plans to discontinue use of the electric trolleys that operate off catenary wires in Cambridge. 

The goal in each case is to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, cut emissions, and move the state closer to its climate change goals. The transportation sector accounts for 42 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing fossil fuel use at the T would cut the state’s overall emissions and also provide a path to additional reductions if drivers can be persuaded to abandon their cars for public transit. 

T officials would like to move quickly on electrification, but they say the process cannot be rushed. With buses, for example, T officials say they need to first build garages capable of servicing and charging electric buses. Only then would it make sense to start buying battery electric buses. 

The first garage to house electric buses in Cambridge is expected to be finished in 2023, a new Quincy garage is expected to follow in 2024, and a new Arborway Garage should be finished in 2027. Electrifying the Wellington (2029) and Lynn (2030) garages would be next up, followed by the remaining garages over time. 

T officials say 3 percent of the transit authority’s buses are electric now. That percentage is forecasted to rise to 30 percent by 2027, 50 percent by 2030, and 100 percent by 2040. 

As the timeline shows, the T isn’t prepared to embrace battery electric buses yet. So on Thursday, over the objection of transit and climate activists, the MBTA board of directors approved a $157 million procurement of 160 diesel-electric hybrid buses. Those buses will displace dirtier all-diesel buses, but for climate activists the procurement is an opportunity missed. 

The first procurement of more than 400 battery electric buses will begin soon and be finished next year, just in time to park some of them overnight in the new garage in Cambridge. By 2027, after the new Quincy and Arborway garages come online, the T forecasts that all bus purchases will be battery electric. 

The T is also taking a step backward on electrification in Cambridge and Watertown, where electric trolleys that operate off of catenary wires are being removed from service and replaced by diesel buses. Advocates decry the move as “badly misdirected” and a move in the wrong direction, but MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said on Thursday that it can’t be helped.

 Poftak said Cambridge, Watertown, and the utility National Grid are making roadway improvements that require the overhead wires to come down for 5 ½ years. He said the T plans to shift to diesel electric hybrid buses on the routes for the next couple of years and then replace those vehicles with battery electric buses down the road, once the new garage in North Cambridge is completed. 

The electrification of the T’s bus fleet is moving forward, albeit at a slower pace than many would prefer. But a plan for electrifying the diesel-powered commuter rail system is yet to emerge. The MBTA’s previous oversight board — the Fiscal and Management Control Board — approved a resolution in November 2019 calling for electrification and more frequent service on the Providence and Fairmount lines and on at least a portion of the Rockport/Newburyport line that serves Lynn, Chelsea, Revere, and Everett.

Given the high costs involved and a budget squeeze looming in coming years, the MBTA has shown little interest in electrifying the commuter rail system. The new, more passive T board of directors is also not pressing the transit authority for any quick action, which means electrification of the commuter rail system is likely to be on hold for some time.

 BRUCE MOHL

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Senate rejects gas tax suspension: Connecticut temporarily suspends its gas tax, while the Massachusetts Senate follows the lead of the House in rejecting a GOP proposal to do something similar. The measure was defeated 29-11 on a roll call vote. Read more.

Blue Line shutdown: The MBTA is shutting a big chunk of the Blue Line, the T’s busiest subway line, for 13 days to replace 1,800 feet of track and perform tunnel improvements. The shutdown will affect about 25,000 riders, who will have to use two shuttle bus options. Read more.

Stipend called misguided: Evan Horowitz of the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University calls the Baker administration’s decision to give a $4,000 stipend to employers for each worker they hire “deeply misguided.” Read more.

SJC franchisee ruling: The Supreme Judicial Court, in a case dealing with 7-Eleven franchisees, rules that franchises must comply with the state’s independent contractor law. The case is somewhat unusual because 7-Eleven wields unusually strong control over its franchisees. Read more

OPINION

Shuttle bus mixups: Jeremy Mendelson of TransitMatters points to the recent Orange Line shutdown and says the MBTA needs to dramatically step up its game in running bus shuttles during so-called construction diversions. Read more.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

Suffolk County saw one of the steepest population declines in the country last year, losing 3.3 percent of its population over a 15-month period. (Boston Globe

Crime and open-air drug dealing remain rampant in the Mass. and Cass area of Boston despite the removal of the tent encampment there. (Boston Globe

Stockbridge Police Chief Darrell Fennelly says the state’s new police reform law has cut off access to so-called reserve officers and he needs to hire a new member of the force to fill the gap. (Berkshire Eagle)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Nurses at Beverly Hospital and Adams Gilbert Hospital threaten to go on a three-day strike over contract negotiations. (Salem News)

Only about half of fully vaccinated Massachusetts residents have received booster shots against COVID-19. (Boston Globe

The Massachusetts Medical Society and the Fenway institute call on the Food and Drug Administration to rescind a policy that bars most gay men from donating blood. (GBH)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

The Biden administration and the European Union vow to work together to reduce the EU’s reliance on Russian natural gas. Details were scarce, but any bid to liquefy US natural gas and ship it to Europe could have an impact in New England, which is heavily dependent on natural gas. (Associated Press)

Virginia Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, repeatedly texted with then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows after the 2020 election, urging him to pursue efforts to overturn the presidential election. (Washington Post

The Boston Herald continues to hammer Biden administration climate czar John Kerry over his office’s foot-dragging on a public information request for information on who works in his office, information Kerry’s office says won’t be provided until October 2024. 

ELECTIONS

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz challenged Attorney General Maura Healey, her rival for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, to three debates before the June state Democratic Party convention. Healey, the front-runner in polls and fundraising, was non-committal. (Boston Herald

US Air Force veteran Shirley Arriaga of Chicopee will run for state representative to replace retiring Rep. Joseph Wagner. (MassLive)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Half a million lower-income workers in the state will receive $500 checks by the end of March as part of the state’s expenditure of American Rescue Act funds. (Boston Herald

Expanded outdoor dining and to-go cocktails will likely continue for another year, after the House and Senate both signed off on an extension. Gov. Charlie Baker must still sign the policy, which is included in a supplemental budget bill. (MassLive)

A study funded by Uber, Lyft, and other industry groups says drivers earn on average $26 an hour, but opponents of the Uber/Lyft ballot campaign say the study is wrong and drivers actually earn much less. (MassLive)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Victim witness advocates are seeing huge increases in their caseloads due to a spike in domestic violence cases related to the pandemic. (MassLive)

Gov. Charlie Baker is taking about repairing but not replacing the Roderick Ireland courthouse in Springfield, where conditions have posed health hazards for years. (MassLive)

PASSINGS

Edward Johnson, who built Fidelity Investments into a global powerhouse that changed how Americans invest, dies at 91. (Boston Globe)