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Metro Transit updates lawmakers on plans for transition to electric bus fleet

A Metro Transit bus on Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis. The agency updated House lawmakers March 31 on its efforts to transition to an electric bus fleet. (Screenshot via Metro Transit)
A Metro Transit bus on Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis. The agency updated House lawmakers March 31 on its efforts to transition to an electric bus fleet. (Screenshot via Metro Transit)

How electric can you get? And how fast?

The transition to electric vehicles is clearly afoot, judging from auto manufacturers’ advertising and communications with investors. And electric pickup trucks are currently hot advance sellers awaiting delivery.

But what about buses? With an eye on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to slow climate change, is it possible for mass transit to go electric?

Last year, the Legislature and governor asked the Metropolitan Council — which is responsible for mass transit in the Twin Cities area — to develop a zero-emission and electric transit vehicle transition plan that would be revisited and updated every five years.

That report was submitted on Feb. 15 and discussed Thursday by the House Climate and Energy Finance and Policy Committee. Metro Transit has found its research encouraging enough that it plans to expand the number of electric buses from the current eight to 108 by 2027.

The report also contains a case study that compares the Twin Cities area to Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle and Toronto in its adoption progress and plans. Seattle is planning on purchasing 250 new electric buses by 2028; Toronto wants to add 300 to its fleet by 2025.

But Nick Thompson, Metro Transit’s assistant general manager for capital projects, thinks Metro Transit will soon catch up.

“Toronto is a great model that we’ll be on par with very shortly,” Thompson said.

The Twin Cities is the only one of the five transit systems in the study that doesn’t have plans in place for an entirely zero-emissions bus fleet by 2040. Metro Transit plans to have 20% of its bus purchases be electric between now and 2027.

Thompson said $3.2 million is included in the governor’s supplemental budget request for the purchase of electric buses, and Metro Transit is applying for federal funds that could add 15 new electric buses to the fleet.

“The target was set as 2027,” Thompson said. “Between 2028 and 2032, the transition will be driven by several performance measures, including reliability, maintenance record, cost per mile, and the environmental impact.”

Thompson said the large-scale implementation of electric buses faces some barriers that include the capacity of the electrical grid and the speed of innovation.

“The technology is changing rapidly,” he said. “Currently, it’s more expensive, but we expect that it’s going to come down very quickly.”

The committee also dealt with electric school buses during the hearing. Rep. Athena Hollins (DFL-St. Paul) sponsors HF4653 to authorize a public utility to seek approval from the Public Utilities Commission for implementation of a program that could defray the costs of electric school buses purchased by school districts.

Dr. Jeff Nelson, a retired physician from Cottage Grove, cited a Harvard School of Public Health study saying that there’s a strong correlation between air pollution and poor academic performance. Hollins pointed to a University of Georgia study showing that schools transitioning to electric school buses saw their academic test scores improve.

The bill was laid over for possible inclusion in a climate and energy omnibus bill. Its companion, SF4364, sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Port (DFL-Burnsville), awaits action in the Senate Energy and Utilities Finance and Policy Committee.

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