April 8, 2021

NJ Transit is still slow-walking electric bus conversion | Editorial

NJ Transit is still slow-walking electric bus conversion | Editorial

Today, the MTA has 25 electric buses humming on the streets of New York City. Los Angeles, with an eye on having a zero-emission fleet in time for the 2028 Olympics, ordered 155 electric buses last year. The Chicago Transit Authority, thrilled by how well these vehicles performed in extreme temperatures, just rolled out six new electrics last week, with 17 more on the way.

They all boast of extraordinary benefits: The CTA says one electric bus saves the agency $50,000 each year in fuel and maintenance costs, and that a single bus saves the city $55,000 each year in avoided healthcare expenses resulting from cleaner air.

Here’s the number of electrics at New Jersey Transit, the largest state-wide system in the US, which has a fleet of 2,200 buses: Zero. Zilch. Nada.

You may assert your right to be flummoxed on this one. Yes, there is a plan to roll out a pilot program of eight electric buses in Camden in December, but you’d think that a state that just borrowed $4 billion would seize the chance to make smart investments that benefit workers and commuters and families while reducing the state’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions (42 percent), led by those horrid diesel-powered buses that pollute our roads, our air, and the lungs of our city kids.

But instead of using the borrowed money to pay down the debt or do something that mitigates the threats of climate change and rising sea levels — which chew up more coastline here than in any other state but Florida — Gov. Murphy’s idea of fiscal prudence is to convert millionaire tax revenue into $500 rebates.

For the record, that bit of election year voter bribery costs $319 million, which is enough to purchase 1,800 electric buses.

That’s the kind of math unpacked last week in a revealing report from New Jersey Policy Perspective, which found that while the up-front price is high, a $750,000 electric bus produces extraordinary savings in maintenance costs, health benefits, and in the reduction of environmental damage.

NJ Transit has yet to read the report or comment on its findings, but this cannot be repeated often enough:

Swapping out one electric for one diesel prevents 200,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from being belched into the atmosphere every year, so we are all on the clock here.

Murphy agreed to the timetable. The comprehensive Electric Vehicle Law he signed 14 months ago included a mandate for NJT to electrify its bus fleet, with an initial goal of making 10 percent of its bus purchases all electric by the end of 2024; 50 percent of all purchases electric by the end of 2026; and 100 percent by 2032.

If NJ Transit was serious about going 100 percent electric by 2032, it would be reflected in the capital plan it released last June. But NJPP points out that NJ Transit allocates only $15 million towards buying the vehicles through 2026, which is not a satisfactory trajectory: “This indicates that less than one percent of bus purchases over the next six years would be electric, which drastically misses the goals outlined in the Electric Vehicle Law,” the report said.

And (broken record alert) without a dedicated source of funding and an end to the agency’s infamous capital-to-operating raids — which Murphy continues to abide — it will be difficult to achieve the 2032 mandate. NJ Transit wasn’t taking it very seriously anyway. Its capital plan sets a target date for full electrification by 2040.

Assembly Transportation chair Daniel Benson (D-Mercer) agrees that “our climate future is largely dependent upon our investments in clean energy,” and he recognizes that “there’s still a long way to go for NJ Transit.”

Circumstances, however, allow NJT to make up for lost time. As advocate Pam Frank of ChargEVC-NJ put it, “The technology has progressed, and the market is growing at an accelerated pace. The bad news is, we are so way behind other states. This isn’t reaching for the stars, it’s highly achievable with the right political will.”

Other states get it. Electric buses provide cleaner, safer, healthier, and less expensive transportation in the long run, and NJ Transit is stuck in the starting gate — not only with vehicle purchases, but with charging infrastructure and garages. The slow ramp-up is no longer excusable.

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