Public Pressure Builds to Decarbonize U.S. Capital’s Bus Fleet

Politics prevails in Washington, DC no less in the realm of public transit than in all other areas of life, and political pressure is shaping the future of the city's bus fleet.

Coming together as the Metro Electric Bus Coalition, public health, environmental, and faith groups are pressuring the new Board of Directors of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to scrap the Metrobus Fleet Plan the previous board approved last June.

The coalition wants it replaced with a plan that accelerates the transition to an all-electric fleet to serve the 5.4 million residents of the U.S. capital city.

The coalition is not alone in its support of bus electrification. Last year, 48 elected officials, including four members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and more than 30 Maryland state legislators also urged Metro to replace half its nearly 1,600 fossil-fueled buses by the end of the decade.

"The previous Metro board did not have the information it needed to make an informed decision about the future of the Metrobus fleet," said Steve Banashek, the electric vehicle chair for the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter, a coalition member.

THE NEW BOARD SHOULD DIRECT THE TRANSIT AGENCY TO FAST-TRACK ITS ELECTRIC BUS PROCUREMENT SCHEDULE, WHICH – AS IT NOW STANDS – WOULD CONDEMN DC METROPOLITAN AREA RESIDENTS TO DECADES OF FOSSIL FUEL BUS POLLUTION.

Steve Banashek

Sierra Club, Virginia

Metrobus at Washington - Photo by Elvert Barnes Photography)
Metrobus at Washington - Photo by Elvert Barnes Photography)

Six of the current eight board members were not involved in developing the existing plan.

So, the coalition provided the new board with a memo explaining how fossil fuel buses threaten public health and the climate, and an analysis of the plan the staff presented to the previous board, revealing its inaccuracies.

The schedule adopted by the previous board has electricity powering fewer than 20 percent of Metro’s 1,595 bus fleet in 2030, the same year the Los Angeles transit agency, with its 2,320 buses, and Houston’s transit agency, with more than 1,230 buses, plan to have all-electric fleets.

Elsewhere across the country, the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority with 5,920 buses, the Chicago Transit Authority running 1,864 buses, and King County Metro in Seattle with its 1,600 buses, are scheduled to be all-electric by 2040.

If Metro sticks to the schedule adopted last June, the Washington, DC fleet will not be fully electric until 2045.

"We recommend that the new board direct Metro to buy only electric buses from now on," said Tim Oberleiton, senior attorney with Earthjustice’s Right to Zero campaign, another coalition member. "That would enable the Metro to electrify 45 percent its fleet by 2030."

Earthjustice is a public interest environmental law firm with offices in Washington, DC and across the country.

The Metro Electric Bus Coalition recommends that the Transit Authority:

  • Stop buying fossil fuel buses after the last of the fossil fuel buses are delivered from its 2018 contract with New Flyer, move expeditiously to complete its electric bus pilot project, and then, during its next five-year procurement cycle from fiscal year 2024 through fiscal year 2028, buy only electric buses. Metro should install electric bus charging infrastructure at bus garages in all three jurisdictions to accommodate the purchase of 100 electric buses annually.
  • Cancel its plans to
  1. increase the percentage of compressed natural gas (CNG) buses in the fleet,
  2. build a new CNG fueling facility at the Shepherd Parkway garage, and
  3. expand the Bladensburg garage’s capacity to fuel more CNG buses. The elected officials. too, oppose expanding Metro’s reliance on methane.
  • Cancel plans to install new diesel-related storage tanks and infrastructure at the Northern Bus garage and only house electric buses there after the renovation is complete.

"It makes no sense for Metro to spend millions of dollars on new diesel infrastructure that will become a stranded asset," said Taalib-Din Uqdah of the Northern Bus Barn Neighbors, a coalition partner. "We have had enough of diesel bus noise and pollution."

  • Initially deploy electric buses at garages in low-income and environmental justice neighborhoods to ensure the buses benefit area residents who are disproportionately harmed by smog and other transportation-related air pollution.

MAJOR TRANSIT AGENCIES ACROSS THE COUNTRY ARE FACING SIMILAR CHALLENGES AS METRO. BUT UNLIKE METRO, THEY ARE ADDRESSING THOSE CHALLENGES HEAD ON AND HAVE AMBITIOUS PLANS TO ELECTRIFY THEIR FLEETS AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE. THERE IS NO REASON WHY METRO CANNOT DO THE SAME.

Elliott Negin

Union of Concerned Scientists

"The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate recently issued a report that said that to keep average global temperatures from going up any more than 1.5 degrees Celsius - the pledge that nearly 200 nations made in the Paris climate agreement - global carbon emissions will have to drop 45 percent this decade," said Oberleiton, the Earthjustice attorney, "Metro has to do its part."

In February, the Washington, DC Council echoed the coalition’s recommendations, unanimously adopting a resolution calling on Metro to electrify "at least 50 percent of its bus fleet by 2030."

"Going forward," the resolution states, "Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority must buy only electric buses."