MBTA in no big rush on electrification
There’s a plan for buses, but not for commuter rail
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.
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.