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Metro votes to have all electric buses by 2030

The Silver Line.
Jonathan Riley via Flickr
Metro plans to electrify the Orange and Silver lines first as part of its plan to switch its entire fleet of 2,200 buses to zero-emissions technology by 2030.

The nation’s second largest transit agency today committed to switching all of its buses to zero emissions technology by 2030.

In front of a packed house, the board of the LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted to slowly phase out its 2,200 natural gas buses in favor of electric ones.

“We’re living in a time when the national political scene is moving backwards,” said LA City Councilman and Metro board member Mike Bonin. “We have opportunity to do the opposite.”

The agency plans to begin by electrifying the Orange Line, a bus line that runs from North Hollywood through the San Fernando Valley, before 2020. The Silver Line, which runs from downtown LA to San Pedro, comes next, in 2021.

Metro is the largest public transit agency yet to set a goal of ditching internal combustion engines.

In Southern California, two transit agencies in the Antelope and San Gabriel valleys have goals of running only buses with zero tailpipe emissions in the next 15 years. But these agencies are much smaller than Metro. Combined, they have fewer than 450 buses – less than 20 percent of Metro’s total bus fleet.

Currently, Metro has zero electric buses in its fleet. At Thursday’s meeting the board approved two contracts totalling $108 million for 95 electric buses that will run on the Silver and Orange lines.

John Drayton, Metro’s head of vehicle technology, previously told the Metro board that currently available electric bus technology will work on these lines because they are flatter and less demanding on the bus than many of the county's other bus routes. If all goes well, the Metro board will decide in 2019 on whether to proceed with the next phase: replacing the rest of the natural gas fleet with electric buses.

There is not currently an electric bus on the market that can meet Metro's needs for its rapid or local service, where buses run 250 miles a day, but Drayton guessed those buses would be available around 2022. However, if by that time the bus technology hasn’t progressed as much as Metro thought, the agency will push back the 2030 timeline.

Drayton previously told KPCC he’s aware of the challenges the agency faces.

“I worry all the time,” he said. “This is not a comfortable 'go and buy buses that have been driven for 12 years and are service-proven.' We’re going into new territory here.”

The natural gas industry picked up on those concerns, warning that electric bus technology was unproven and unreliable. Indeed, Henry Buckingham, who spoke at Thursday’s meeting, reminded the Metro board than an early demonstration project of electric buses at the agency failed, and the company that manufactured the buses, BYD, bought them back.

But LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is the chairman of the Metro board, wasn't convinced. He called natural gas buses "an existing technology that was a good bridge technology but now we have to go further." He cited the gas leak from Aliso Canyon as an example of "just how bad any carbon-based fuel can be."

Natural gas supporters also cautioned that electric buses would not deliver on the promised emissions reductions because the electricity used to charge the buses may be, in part, powered by coal.

But a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that using L.A.s' current electricity mix, greenhouse gas emissions from electric buses “are significantly lower than emissions from Metro’s current fleet of natural gas buses” and would get cleaner as the agency phased out coal power. 

Supporters of the strategy applauded Metro for acting on climate change but pushed the board to be even more aggressive in phasing out natural gas buses sooner.

Manuel Criollo, with the Labor/Community Strategy Center, pointed out that even as board members approved contracts for 95 electric buses, they also purchased 65 new natural gas buses.

Slowly upgrading the agency’s natural gas buses to even cleaner, lower-emissions engines is part of Metro’s eventual zero-emissions plan.

This story was updated to correct Manuel Criollo's name and title.