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Here come the electric buses

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Make way for the electric buses.

The US Department of Transportation and the Federal Transit Administration is sending out $1.7 billion from President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to 46 states and territories to fund the acquisition of 1,700 buses — over half of which will be zero-emission models.

The new awards will bring the total number of zero-emission buses funded by the infrastructure law up to 1,800, which is more than double the number of clean buses on the roads today. That still only represents a fraction of the roughly 60,000 buses that are currently in operation in the US, but officials hailed it as an important step toward updating the nation’s aging transit fleet with an eye toward fighting climate change.

The new awards will bring the total number of zero-emission buses funded by the infrastructure law up to 1,800

“These are unprecedented levels of investment when it comes to putting modern cleaner buses on the road,” US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said in a briefing with reporters. “These projects will improve and increase bus service and bus reliability, so more people can get to where they need to affordably on time. And it’ll lower costs for local taxpayers. It’s simply a better commute when you’re on one of these cleaner buses.”

Each awardee is set to receive millions of dollars to fund the purchase of new buses, update garage facilities to install charging infrastructure, and retrain drivers and mechanics to support their maintenance and upkeep. The funds, which will go to urban and rural communities, as well as Indian reservations, are being distributed from the FTA’s Grants for Buses and Bus Facilities and Low- and No-Emission (Low-No) Vehicle programs.

Examples include $104 million to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to convert its Lorton, Virginia, bus garage into an EV-supporting facility; $33.5 million to King County Metro Transit in Seattle, Washington, to buy approximately 30 battery-electric buses; and $23.3 million to Iowa City to replace four diesel buses with electric models.

The Biden administration was quick to tout the economic development advantages of its clean bus investments. According to Buttigieg, all of the acquired buses will be manufactured in America, and the funds will also be put toward workforce development to ensure that transit employees have the skills to operate and maintain this new generation of vehicles.

“These are unprecedented levels of investment when it comes to putting modern cleaner buses on the road”

But not all of the new models will be zero-emission. At least half of the buses will be powered by natural gas or “another fuel source that makes our air far less toxic,” Veronica Vanterpool, deputy administrator for the FTA, said.

“We know for some agencies zero emission isn’t the answer yet,” Vanterpool added. “But they want to replace their older diesel or gasoline buses with something better for their community.”

Combined with last year’s announcement, there are now 3,300 new vehicles on the road that are either zero-emission or powered by less polluting forms of fuel. Today’s announcement accounts for an additional 700 zero-emission buses, including battery-electric and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.

Transit agencies continue to struggle to recover ridership in the years since the pandemic. Challenges like changing commuter habits, staffing shortages, and declining revenue continue to plague most transit systems in the US. Experts continue to worry about the possibility of a transit “death spiral” — a cycle of terrible service leading to even fewer riders, leading to even more terrible service, and so on.

It’s unclear whether cleaner buses will necessarily improve transit’s future, though few would dispute it’s better for the environment and for the health of people who live in the communities serviced by transit. Some critics have argued that the money would be better spent on improving service rather than on acquiring an expensive new fleet — especially when the production of these new buses remains very much a work in progress.

For example, Nova Bus, a Canadian manufacturer that makes zero-emission models, announced recently that it would be closing its facility in upstate New York to refocus on its locations in Quebec.

But Buttigieg said cleaner buses go hand in hand with improved service and reliability. “We’re putting historic funding into making public transit cleaner, safer, more reliable and more resilient,” he said, “because it is absolutely essential to our daily lives.”

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