NJ Transit Head: Not So Fast on Move to Electrify Bus Fleet

Reliability concerns that have cropped up in other states have caused agency to throttle back on plans to push clean and green over diesel

New Jersey Transit is taking a go-slow approach toward electrifying its fleet of 2,500 buses, in part due to reliability concerns that have arisen in other places where battery-powered vehicles have been deployed, the agency’s chief executive said Monday at a transportation infrastructure symposium in Newark.

The cautionary note comes at the same time advocates in the city have joined environmentalists in pressing the state’s mass transit agency to accelerate its transition to an all-electric fleet, saying that ridding city streets of exhaust-belching buses is a matter of urban health.

“We are getting into that,” said Kevin Corbett, NJ Transit’s president and CEO, “but we want to do it in a way that does not jeopardize the reliability of service.”

Camden to go electric

NJ Transit does not have electric buses as a regular part of its fleet now. It is buying eight, which are destined for a pilot project in Camden next year, and has plans for a similar project in Newark.

Agency officials said the slow plug-in comes after watching electric buses falter in other transit systems.

Corbett pointed to Indianapolis, where several all-electric buses ran out of battery power in colder temperatures and had to offload passengers. BYD, the Chinese manufacturer of the Indianapolis buses, is now installing extra charging stations halfway through the bus routes to help recharge the $1.2 million vehicles. Officials in Albuquerque also alleged that the company’s buses fell short of the advertised 275-mile battery range, according to news reports.

“You don’t want to be in a rush-hour situation, and you’re leaving people left out in the rain or the cold, because those electric buses might be having some service problems,” said Angelo Cianci of HNTB, an infrastructure contractor who has done work for NJ Transit and was among those attending the Monday symposium at the Robert Treat Hotel.

Corbett noted that there were other issues to be ironed out before the agency could adopt electrification on a wholesale basis.

“We have 2,500 buses — if you think of the electric load … to keep those buses charged all the time,” he said. “If you turn on heat or air conditioning, the range of that bus goes down dramatically. Those are the kind of challenges we’re taking.”

NJ Transit turns to tried-and-true diesel

Studies show that, beyond running green and clean, electric buses cost less than half as much to run and maintain as diesel vehicles. But for now, the agency, which serves 478,000 bus riders every weekday, is beefing up its fleet with new diesel buses, 183 regular cruisers and 85 articulated buses, with multiple sections.

Some business leaders agreed that while electric-bus technology has its merits, it still needs more work.

“Long distances, this is something that probably they won’t be able to cover,” said Mitch Nassiri, sales and marketing director of the DoubleTree Hotel at Newark Airport, who attended the symposium. “They are very reliable, in a way, if you’re within a 15-, 20-mile radius.”

Environmentalists and others, though, say now is the time for action. They note that the transportation sector is responsible for 42% of greenhouses gases emitted in New Jersey, and vehicle exhaust has an outsize impact in cities like Newark, which is beset by high asthma rates. Electric buses produce zero tailpipe emissions.

“Does that mean everything is perfect with them? No,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “But it does mean transit agencies across America are realizing that if we want to do what’s right for the public’s lungs, we need to start electrifying. We shouldn’t wait for years to get electric buses on the road.”

Advocates have pushed for the state to match the MTA in New York City, which already has 10 electric buses on the street and is committed to fielding an all-electric fleet by 2040.

NJ Transit received $8 million from the Volkswagen settlement to spend on new electric buses. It also just received more than twice that — $17.3 million — via a federal grant to buy more diesel buses.

‘Speeding’ NJ backward

“NJ Transit shouldn’t be speeding us backwards to the 1960s,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “They should be moving us to the 21st century by going all-electric, and by having those electric buses available now — and have 100% electric-bus purchases by 2025.”

Advocates in Newark have also been among those urging passage of a bill currently before the Legislature that pushes NJ Transit to go all-electric, saying air pollution threatens public health.