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Investment in electric buses will drive New York’s clean energy plan forward | Opinion


With another Earth Day in our rearview mirror, New York remains in the driver’s seat as transportation systems shift gears and drive away from fossil fuels and toward emission-free vehicles.

This will mean cleaner air for the public at large and passengers and also a reduction in carbon emissions. But it will also require coordinated efforts to overcome real challenges.

Between the recently enacted 2022-23 state budget and the 2021 federal infrastructure law, significant sums have been allocated to shift from gas to electric-powered private vehicles, school buses, and public transit over the next decade and a half.

The budget includes a plan to make the state’s approximately 50,000 school buses 100% electric by 2035. New York City plans to convert its entire municipal fleet of nearly 30,000 vehicles to electric vehicles by 2035, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority is committed to deploying a zero-emissions bus fleet by 2040.

Critically, the federal infrastructure bill provides transit agencies funds for the infrastructure to support these electric vehicles: $7.5 billion for electric vehicle infrastructure and another $3.7 billion dedicated to zero-emission bus (ZEB) transitions. The impact of these initiatives on the environment could be massive. Transportation contributed 28 percent of NYC’s overall greenhouse gas emissions in 2019.

The plan to convert school buses alone will generate big clean energy dividends. The average school bus runs 12,000 miles per year, getting about 8 miles to the gallon. Some basic, back-of-the-envelope math shows that converting 50,000 school buses in New York to emissions-free vehicles would eliminate the consumption of 75 million gallons of fuel.

But we must be cleared-eyed about the bumpy road ahead. Many challenges must be addressed for this conversion to succeed.

To their credit, the Governor and the state Legislature recognized this and included language in the new budget requiring NYSERDA and state agencies to help school districts and municipalities identify barriers to the 100%-by-2035 goal so they can be resolved at the front end and don’t delay the process.

Over the past year, we’ve seen an astonishing rise in popularity and sales of electric and zero-emission passenger vehicles - helped along by escalating gas prices, changes in battery technology, and cooperation from manufacturers at all stages. But this progress is threatened by a lack of investment in the infrastructure necessary to support EVs statewide. At the same time, the transition of larger electric vehicles - specifically buses - has occurred at a slower rate due to a variety of supply chain, manufacturing, deployment, and charging challenges.

Meanwhile, agencies are expected to make this change at a staggering speed. School and municipal buses typically stay on the road for 10-12 years. Going emissions-free by 2035 means doing so in basically one bus lifecycle. This could mean that the diesel buses purchased today may very well be the last of that fuel type an agency will purchase.

Every agency needs to look at this timeframe and start making proactive decisions about fleet management taking into consideration infrastructure, operating costs, employee skill sets, and service requirements.

As they make those decisions, transit agencies and school districts will need to look at a wide range of factors. Are their bus routes generally flat or hilly; long or short; congested or fast? Will they need to heat passengers in cold climates, cool them in hot summers or both? Will there be a charging infrastructure to support those vehicles? Is the current inventory of buses sufficient to address the range limitations associated with battery-electric buses? What kind of resiliency is appropriate to support this new fleet?

Experienced consultants with a history of transit planning and detailed engineering design work will help answer these questions. In a state like New York, no one solution will fit every community. Agencies will need to work with industry partners like Parsons to combine route- and vehicle-specific data simulations, experienced designers, and transportation engineers to inform decision-making.

The good news is those partners exist, and they are already working with agencies to build the transportation infrastructure of the future. Now, we have an opportunity to do it greener, leaner, and more effectively than ever before.

Russell Davies is a 30-year transportation professional in both the private and public sectors, serving 17 years with Calgary Transit in roles of increasing responsibility, including as Agency Director. Russell currently serves as the Zero Emission Bus Lead for Parsons.