NJ’s bus fleet should go all-electric, advocates say

Electric buses would cut emissions, reduce running costs and clean the air, new report says
Credit: (MTAPhotos via Creative Commons under CC BY 2.0)
An articulated electric bus in service just across the Hudson in New York City

Clean-energy advocates urged New Jersey transportation planners to quickly replace the state’s fleet of diesel buses with electric ones, arguing that the new vehicles would cut greenhouse-gas emissions, reduce maintenance and fuel bills and improve public health.

New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal think tank, issued a report on Wednesday saying that adoption of electric buses would improve air quality, especially for people in environmental-justice communities who are more likely to use public transit than other residents.

Pricier than diesel

The report estimated that New Jersey would need $1.96 billion just in vehicle costs to replace the state’s whole fleet of 2,183 diesel buses with electric ones, each for a price of $749,000 at current prices. That’s significantly more than the approximately $500,000 that a 40-foot diesel bus costs, but prices of new electric vehicles and their batteries are expected to come down as more are made and purchased, the report said.

New Jersey Transit estimates that the total cost for converting its bus fleet to electric vehicles would be $5.7 billion, for the buses themselves, as well as the requisite charging infrastructure and garages, the report said.

It calculated that the cost of maintenance will drop to 55 cents a mile from $2.93 for diesel buses, while the fuel cost per mile will decline to 19 cents from $2.81. Other savings would include a reduction in health care costs from breathing air that’s polluted by the particulates from diesel fuel and is blamed for more than 2,000 premature deaths every year.

And it argued that eliminating diesel buses would help drive down greenhouse-gas emissions from the transportation sector, which contributes 42%, the biggest share, to the state’s overall emissions.

“Transitioning from diesel to electric buses is a common-sense, cost-effective approach to combating climate change,” said Nausheen Rajan, the report’s author. “Electric buses will reduce the environmental dangers and damage to health that ride along with diesel buses every day. They will also help narrow the wide disparities in New Jersey where some people — especially those in communities of color — face barriers to leading healthy lives.”

The report estimated that using an all-electric bus fleet would reduce the financial impacts of climate change — such as big storms — by some $3,000 per year for each bus, resulting in a statewide benefit of $8 million a year.

Biden’s EV allocation

The report came on the same day that President Joe Biden released a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that included $174 billion, in the plan’s transportation category, by far the largest amount, for electric-vehicle incentives, including 500,000 EV chargers.

And the recommendations follow Gov. Phil Murphy’s clean-energy targets, including buying 7,500 megawatts of offshore-wind power by 2035 and transitioning to 100% clean energy by 2050.

Murphy’s Energy Master Plan, published in 2019, calls for “almost entirely” decarbonizing the transportation sector by 2050 by electrifying cars and other short-range vehicles, especially in environmental-justice communities. It called for a “concerted effort” to reduce vehicle-miles traveled.

New Jersey Transit is required by an electric-vehicle law signed last year to buy only electric buses by the end of 2032. But NJPP said NJ Transit has allocated only $15 million towards buying the vehicles through 2026, indicating that it is already behind its target for complying with the law.

Nancy Snyder, a spokeswoman for the agency, declined to comment on the report’s details because the agency had not yet reviewed it. But she said NJ Transit is “rigorously” working toward complying with the law’s requirements. She said the agency plans to meet the goal of all bus purchases being zero-emission vehicles by 2032, and that it has budgeted $300 million for buying buses during that period.

Clean buses for Camden

In February, the agency issued a request for proposals for the purchase of eight electric buses that would be deployed in Camden, where it plans to study how the vehicles perform in a real-world setting. Last September, NJ Transit awarded a $3.2 million contract to a Vineland company for fitting a Camden bus garage with charging infrastructure.

The Camden pilot program will start at the end of 2021 when the new buses are due to be delivered, Snyder said.

“NJ Transit has made investment in environmentally friendly technology a priority since the beginning of the Murphy administration and remains fully engaged with, and learning from, other transit agencies in the process,” she said.

Other agencies to benefit from declining costs include one in the Los Angeles area where the cost of electric buses dropped to $789,000 each in 2015 from $1 million in 2009, according to the NJPP report.

To pay for bus electrification, NJPP proposed the diversion of funds currently planned for widening the New Jersey Turnpike and other highways; tapping the Clean Energy Fund, which has been used to support NJ Transit operations; and raising sales and estate taxes.

Other funding could come, the report said, from a carbon-emissions permit program proposed by a group of northeastern and mid-Atlantic states called the Transportation and Climate Initiative Program that would generate revenue for low-emissions projects like electrification.

Potentially, federal money could come from a trust that pays for vehicle-emission cuts, or from Department of Transportation grants to support public transit, the report said.