T buys hybrid buses after assurances on Chelsea

Officials say vehicles will go electric through community

THE MBTA’S Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday unanimously approved an $89 million contract for 45 new Silver Line buses after receiving assurances from staff members that the diesel hybrid vehicles would be able to operate on electric power as they navigate through the environmental justice community of Chelsea.

The 60-foot New Flyer buses, called enhanced electric hybrids, use a diesel generator to both propel the bus forward and to charge a battery that can be tapped to operate the bus in an all-electric mode. The new vehicles, slated to arrive by summer 2022, would replace a fleet of over-the-hill buses purchased between 2004 and 2006.

Several transportation advocates, including one of the T’s own bus drivers, told the control board that it should be buying all-electric buses. Ari Ofsevit, who argued against procuring the new enhanced electric hybrids in a CommonWealth op-ed, said the T shouldn’t be buying a diesel-power bus that he described as “an insidious example of ‘greenwashing.’”

Silver Line buses run routes between South Station and Logan International Airport, Chelsea, and parts of the Seaport. The buses leave South Station via a tunnel that lacks the ventilation needed for a diesel-power bus.

The existing Silver Line buses draw power from overhead wires in the tunnel and then shift to diesel power once they come above ground. The new buses aren’t designed to use the overhead wires, so they will operate in all-electric mode in the tunnel and then shift to their diesel engines when they come above ground. Transit advocates say the new buses will need to operate on diesel power in East Boston and Chelsea, increasing greenhouse gas emissions in those communities.

Bill Wolfgang, the T’s director of vehicle engineering, disagreed. He told the control board that the new buses would need to shift to diesel after emerging from the tunnel but could quickly recharge their batteries and be able to run on all-electric mode for 2 to 2.5 miles through Chelsea before needing to shift to diesel and recharge again. He said the bus would probably need to operate on diesel power on the way to the airport and at the airport to recharge the battery.

Wolfgang said the T purchased one of the buses as part of a previous procurement and has tested it extensively to see how long it can operate in the all-electric mode before needing to recharge. He said the vehicles can run in the all-electric mode 60 percent of the time.

After hearing transit and health advocates question the wisdom of purchasing buses that run on diesel engines, members of the control board peppered T officials about why they weren’t purchasing buses that can operate on electric batteries.

“Battery electric buses that we have tested to date are not able to provide the service that we demand of these Silver Line buses. And so the battery capacity is simply not there,” said Eric Stoothoff, the MBTA’s chief engineer.

Joe Aiello, the chairman of the control board, urged T officials to come up with ways to extend the all-electric mode of the buses, perhaps by locating charging stations at Logan Airport. “It’s not a perfect bus, but it’s much, much better than we have today,” Aiello said of the procurement. “This is a good investment for us.”

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack took a similar approach, saying T staffers should explore additional ways to enhance use of the buses in the all-electric mode. She said the T has little choice but to purchase the new buses now because of the age of the buses being replaced,.

“We need to buy it now. We don’t have a choice. The Silver Line is in terrible shape,” she said.