Mallon: The challenge of implementing zero-emission buses
A VTA bus is pictured at Diridon Station in this file photo.

    With the new year come new laws and policies, and perhaps the biggest one that will impact transit in Santa Clara County is a state requirement moving large transit agencies toward implementing zero-emission buses.

    In 2018, the California Air Resources Board adopted an innovative clean transit regulation that requires all transit agencies in the state to transition to zero-emission bus fleets by 2040, and sets purchasing targets that began on Jan. 1. For every 100 buses purchased, 25 will be zero-emission vehicles.

    While having zero-emission buses is a noble goal because they will reduce pollution from public transit agencies, there are challenges and trade-offs that should be considered. One of the biggest challenges with electric buses, especially in Santa Clara County, is range.

    VTA currently keeps their buses running for most of the day to offer as much service as possible. However, electric buses have a much shorter range, so this would be infeasible with a fully-electric fleet and service might have to be reduced.

    In addition to having a shorter travel range, electric buses also need to be charged, which usually takes about six hours. If VTA moves forward with depot-charged electric buses, it would need to significantly increase the fleet to maintain service. The public transit agency would likely need to find a new location to store the buses and expand maintenance for a larger fleet.

    Funding is also a major issue. Zero-emission vehicles are about $250 million more than traditional buses, and electric buses require charging infrastructure. While many agencies have been able to obtain grant funding to help with the costs, the transition will be expensive. Significant funding will be needed to purchase the vehicles and set up charging infrastructure. Without increased funding from the state and federal government, transit agencies would need to take funding from other priorities to comply with the mandate.

    While fleet electrification seems like a great climate policy on paper, it’s complicated and could lead to lower service levels, which would lead to lower ridership and more cars on the road.

    Even with diesel buses, transit is already more climate-friendly than driving. If we really care about the climate, we should focus less on feel-good electrification mandates and more on securing the funds needed to run more transit, more often, to more places.

    San José Spotlight columnist Monica Mallon is a transit advocate and rider in Santa Clara County, and founder of Turnout4Transit. Her columns appear on the first Thursday of every other month. Contact Monica at [email protected] or follow @MonicaMallon on Twitter.

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