When the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority retired its last diesel-powered bus in 2011, it became the first major transit agency in the nation to completely switch its fleet to alternative-fuel technologies, demonstrating in the years that followed that buses running on cleaner energy could be both reliable and affordable. Now in an effort to cut pollution even more, Metro is preparing to switch again — this time aiming to shift its entire 2,200-bus fleet to zero-emissions models by 2030.
To that end, Metro's Board of Directors this week is expected to approve a contract to buy 35 electric buses that would operate on the Orange Line busway in the San Fernando Valley. The plan is to complete the rollout of electric buses on the Orange Line by 2020 and by 2021 for the Silver Line, which provides express service between San Pedro, downtown L.A. and El Monte. If the buses perform well, Metro would proceed with plans to buy all zero-emission buses over the next decade.
This is an about-face for the transit agency. Until recently Metro was pursuing plans to buy up to 1,000 compressed natural gas buses, which are significantly cleaner than the old diesel models but still produce smog-forming pollution and emit greenhouse gases. Metro staff members were hesitant to commit to electric buses after some models in a 2015 test ran out of charge quickly and had trouble climbing hills. But environmental groups have been lobbying for Metro to give electric buses another chance, especially after other transit agencies have had more success with newer models.
Metro is right to move cautiously. The agency is still going to buy some 300 natural gas buses this year to replace aging vehicles. But the zero-emission goal is an important one. Large public agencies like Metro are well positioned to be leaders because they have the purchasing power to spur the market forward.
When Metro, the nation's second-largest public transit agency, announces plans to shift to zero-emission buses, it sends a signal across the industry. It shows manufacturers that there are buyers for electric buses. It shows other agencies that the technology is ready for prime time, and it could encourage them to switch as well. Los Angeles County can again lead on cleaner, greener buses.