MTA plans to only buy electric buses come 2028 as officials map greener future for NYC Transit

Clayton Guse, New York Daily News
·4 min read

The MTA’s fleet of 5,800 buses burned 37.5 million gallons of fuel in 2020 — costing the agency nearly $55 million. But an end to the gas guzzling may be on the horizon.

A recent push by transit officials — emboldened by President Biden’s promise to dramatically slash U.S. greenhouse gas emissions — has put the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on a path to buy only electric buses starting in 2028, and use almost no gasoline to power its fleet by 2040, officials said.

It’s an ambitious goal, and the MTA has a long way to go. The agency currently has just 25 electric buses in its fleet, and roughly 55% of the agency’s buses run on diesel fuel.

The MTA earlier this month put out a request to purchase 45 more electric buses, and there’s money for 475 more electric buses in the agency’s 2020-2024 capital plan, which also allocates money for 1,074 buses that run on fossil fuels.

“The technology is maturing,” said Craig Cipriano, head of buses at the MTA. “With the push from the federal government, the amount of focus and, most importantly, the amount of resources and money being put behind it, I really expect it to take off exponentially in the coming years.”

The MTA’s most powerful electric buses, a set of 15 60-footers that operate out of Manhattan, can complete three or four trips before they need to be recharged — a process that takes nearly seven hours, Cipriano said.

The batteries on the electric buses lose power more quickly in the winter, when they must also power heating systems, Cipriano said.

The MTA’s electric models do not have enough range to operate on roughly one-third of the agency’s routes — and there is only one manufacturer that currently makes electric versions of the coach buses that run on the agency’s express routes, officials said.

But the amount of money available for bus manufacturers ought to help move the technology forward.

“I think we have a tremendous impact on the industry,” said Cipriano. “We currently have $1.1 billion programmed from our 2020-2024 capital plan [for electric buses and chargers]. It’s something that no other agency can say ... We buy the most amount of buses of any agency in North America.”

Cipriano said the MTA’s first purchase of hybrid-electric buses in 1997 — which ended up useless — is an example of how quickly electric vehicle technology can progress.

“Those buses ended up being parked in a bus depot because the technology was too premature,” said Cipriano. “Only six years later, in 2003, we bought our first fleet of them and ended up being the largest operator of hybrid-electric in the country.”

MTA officials plan to begin building charging infrastructure in at least eight of the city’s 28 bus depots by 2024 — and Cipriano said the agency will upgrade an average of three depots a year between now and 2040 to handle the plans for an all-electric fleet.

Even if the charging infrastructure is in place and battery performance improves, the city’s and state’s electrical grid must also play catch-up. Cipriano said the current technology would require the MTA to consume 10 times the electricity it uses today if all of its buses were electric.

“The Department of Education last week committed to an all-electric fleet of school buses. The city is committed to an all-electric fleet of non-revenue vehicles,” said Cipriano. “They’re all going to be vying for the same power source.”

Cipriano said electric bus improvements in the coming years should bring longer run times, quicker charge times and less electricity consumption. But he warned that it’s crucial for back-ups — whether diesel buses or other charging methods — in case of an emergency.

“I always go back to Hurricane Sandy, when the bus system was able to move people when the subways were down,” said Cipriano. “We couldn’t do that if we only relied on electricity.”

Four of the agency’s bus depots house infrastructure called compressed natural gas, or CNG, a fossil fuel that’s used to power some buses and is a slightly cleaner fuel source than diesel. Cipriano said his team is trying to figure out how to use that equipment to power electric generators that can charge buses.

If the electrical grid and battery technology improve quickly, the MTA could meet its goal of a full electric fleet well before 2040.

Biden’s goal to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to 50% lower than what they were in 2005 by 2030 — along with his proposed $2 trillion infrastructure package — gives Cipriano hope that’s possible.

“Our plan is to get more aggressive on the federal side and compete for as many grants as possible,” he said.