Editorial: It’s time for zero-emission buses in California

The Metro Orange Line bus going through North Hollywood station on Oct. 20, 2017. The first electric buses Metro buys will only run along the Orange Line busway in the San Fernando Valley and in the carpool lanes along the Harbor and El Monte freeways, officials say.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

While Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Air Resources Board have been fighting the good fight against the Trump administration’s attempt to roll back the state’s clean car agenda, they have been slower to act on the next generation of clean vehicles: zero-emission buses.

That should change Friday, however, when the board is expected to vote on a proposed rule that would require public transit agencies to switch to zero-emission buses by 2040.

This is an important and necessary step toward cleaning up the state’s biggest polluter — the transportation sector. Vehicles are responsible for about 40% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, 80% of oxides of nitrogen (a key ingredient of smog) and 90% of diesel particulate matter. Switching to zero-emission vehicles would dramatically reduce the pollution that sickens Californians and the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming.

The California Air Resources Board is expected to vote on a proposed rule that would require public transit agencies to switch to zero-emission buses by 2040.

To that end, California is making slow, steady progress in expanding the infrastructure and market for electric cars. The next hurdle is moving the state toward zero-emission heavy-duty vehicles. That starts with zero-emission bus regulations, which will expand the market for such vehicles and drive manufacturers to develop more advanced technology that will ultimately spur the development of zero-emission short-haul and long-haul trucks.

The rule would require transit agencies in 2023 to start buying zero-emission buses. That could include battery electric and fuel cell electric buses. The rule is agnostic on how the bus is powered; the bus just has to produce no harmful emissions during operation. By 2029, California transit agencies would be allowed to buy only zero-emission buses.

Transit agencies, understandably, are worried about cost and reliability because the technology is still in the early stages of commercial use. There are about 130 zero-emission buses in operation in the state, officials say, and 650 more are planned to hit the road in near future.

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While there is growing confidence — the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted last year to shift its entire 2,200-bus fleet to zero-emission models by 2030 — there are legitimate questions about how long the buses will be able to operate on a single charge and the logistics of installing charging stations throughout the system. Wisely, the mandate doesn’t kick in until 2023 to give transit agencies and manufacturers time to prepare for it; state regulators have also said they could adjust the compliance dates if the buses aren’t ready for prime time.

Also, the state needs to provide ample public funding to help transit agencies manage the cost of switching to zero-emission buses, which includes not just buying the buses but building the charging and fueling infrastructure. Transit agencies can’t pass the cost along to customers without jeopardizing another climate change goal: getting people to drive less to reduce greenhouse gases. Public transit has to be clean and affordable.

California, again, can be an environmental leader by committing to zero-emission buses.

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