NJ Transit Misses the Mark by Committing Just $15M to Electric Buses Through 2026, Critics Say

Agency says five-year capital plan 'geared towards getting to' Murphy’s mandates for converting to zero-emission fleet
Credit: Esa Niemela from Pixabay
An electric bus at a bus charging station in Helsinki, Finland. Kevin Corbett, executive director of NJ Transit, says the need to establish charging stations at bus garages is one obstacle to achieving targets for electrification of the fleet.

NJ Transit appears destined to miss initial targets for converting its fleet to electric buses, an omission clean-car advocates worry is an ominous sign for electrifying the transportation sector, a top goal of the Murphy administration.

In its five-year capital spending plan, the agency committed $15 million toward purchasing electric buses through 2026, far less than what is needed to achieve mandates to begin to electrify its fleet of buses, advocates said.

A much-touted law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in January established aggressive targets for the agency to convert to electric buses. By the end of 2024, at least 10% of all bus purchases should be zero-emission vehicles, according to the law. By the end of 2026, those purchases of zero-emission vehicles would rise to 50% and 100% by 2032.

‘Extraordinary pressures’

“While we understand the enormity of the issues surrounding NJ Transit pre-COVID-19 and the extraordinary pressures they are facing today due to the pandemic, we were a bit perplexed by this apparent gap in the strategic plan,’’ said Pam Frank, CEO of ChargEVC, a broad coalition of electric vehicle advocates.

The electric vehicle law, adopted after a long and bruising legislative battle, establishes ambitious goals for electrifying the transportation sector, an issue advocates contend New Jersey has been lagging behind neighboring states in addressing.

The law sets benchmarks for installing electric charging stations around the state, establishes rebates to persuade consumers to buy zero-emission vehicles, and targets for eliminating diesel buses, particularly in urban areas suffering some of the worst air quality in New Jersey.

So advocates were surprised when they noticed a disconnect between the agency’s timeline for acquiring electric buses and the schedule to transition to zero-emission buses in the EV law. “It sort of kind of hits you in the head with a 2 X 4,’’ Frank said.

NJ Transit’s strategic plan details a commitment to fully electrify its bus fleet by 2040, a target the agency is striving to meet, according to Kevin Corbett, executive director of NJ Transit.

The agency has targeted $311 million for deployment of electric buses, Corbett said, but argued that other factors, including the need to establish charging stations at bus garages, are a big obstacle in achieving those targets.

“We want to make sure what we do is sustainable and reliable,’ he said.

In addition, the agency has targeted $536 million for a new garage in Oradell, and $1.115 billion for the car garages to upgrade them so they can house electric buses, according to Corbett.

“But as far as meeting the goals, you look at the capital plan, it’s only been out a few weeks, maybe you haven’t had a chance to tell, but the five-year capital plan is geared towards getting to the 100 percent goal of zero emission vehicles by 2040,” Corbett said.

Finally, the agency will meet the goal of having 50 percent of its new fleet purchases be zero emission vehicles by 2026, he said.

Bus charging stations are an obstacle

“NJ Transit is clearly struggling with the fiscal and ridership impacts of COVID-19, but we shouldn’t abandon the mandates of the EV law to start the electrification of our bus fleet,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey and ChargEVC president.

NJ Transit needs to revise its spending plan to include more electric bus purchases more quickly, he said. “NJ Transit shouldn’t walk away from the EV law mandates in the Capital Plan,’’ O’Malley said.