By Bill Chenevert
Good news, everyone.
In an incredibly competitive grant-playing field, like this one that only has $22.5 million up for grabs, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) emerged as one of seven winners April 19. The FTA made a Notice of Funding Availability last September and SEPTA snatched some coins for electric, no-emission buses. This is great.
The FTA says this money shall be used to “deploy the cleanest and most energy-efficient U.S.-made transit buses that have been largely proven in testing and demonstrations but are not yet widely deployed in transit fleets.” Soon enough, you’ll see shiny new whisper-quiet buses along SEPTA Routes 29 and 79 in South Philly. Here are five reasons why this is fantastic.
It makes SEPTA a straight-up trailblazer in its peer eastern seaboard cities
“It’s a very, very competitive program,” explains Richard Burnfield, SEPTA’s deputy general manager. “SEPTA has a very strong sustainability program. What’s so exciting is that SEPTA will be the first large transit agency in the northeast to pilot the buses. To be one of only seven agencies selected nationally, it’s very exciting.” Burnfield is excited.
So what’s up, New York? Got any electric buses? No? Hmm, that’s awkward. How ‘bout you, Boston? Negative? Dang. We got 25! 25 electric buses have been purchased from Proterra, a 2004 Colorado-born company based in California, and Burnfield made it seem like Proterra’s more excited than him.
When Sam Newhouse reported the news for Metro Philly, he called the MTA and the MBTA: “In New York City, there are no plans to buy electric buses, and they are still buying diesel, compressed natural gas (CNG), and ‘clean’ or low-sulfur diesel buses, which an MTA spokesman said are as fuel-efficient as hybrid buses. The MTA last bought hybrid buses in 2010. In Boston, they are planning to buy 325 new buses – hybrids and CNGs – by 2017, an MBTA spokesman said, but are also working on contracts to acquire five electric articulated buses from CTE and New Flyer.” The words I hear are “fuel-efficient” and “plan to” – not like we’ll have one on Tasker Street and Snyder Avenue next summer.
Pedestrians along these routes will have cleaner air and less exhaust choking them to death
You’ve been there. Picture it: you’re walking from Pennsport to Chuck E. Cheese and a regular bus whizzes by you and you make an ugly face, you feel toxic fumes literally screaming into your lungs, and put your arm over your mouth hole. “There’s no internal combustion engine. Locally, there are no emissions associated with the vehicle, just like a trolley or trackless trolley,” explains Erik Johanson, SEPTA’s director of business innovation. No gas. No carbon dioxide pounding angrily on the Ozone layer. Less melting of icecaps.
This could signal the eventual death of the combustion engine, even in personal cars
Not even kidding. “This technology is something that we’re carefully monitoring but it’s something that has emerged rapidly over the last three to five years,” Johnson says. “All the research and development is benefiting the industry by driving down the costs of batteries. This technology will only become more viable both environmentally and economically.” You’ve seen how those Priuses multiply – they’re cute, they’re quiet, they’re environmentally friendly. I’m not saying that we’ll all be driving Priuses and CR-Zs and Volts but I’m not NOT saying that, either.
Newhouse also points out that “when Tesla’s Gigafactory in Nevada reaches full capacity in 2020, it is projected to produce more lithium-ion batteries per year than were produced worldwide in 2013.” Worldwide.
Johanson says the studying and reporting SEPTA did on electric buses is that “it’s more expensive upfront but… would provide significant lifecycle savings over the total life of the bus, which would cover upfront costs.” The grant covers that initial investment to the tune of $100,000 per bus but Proterra’s ready, locked and loaded to come to Philly and implement training and charging stations.
They’ll be mad quiet
How many times have you been literally terrified by a screaming, smoking, speeding bus blasting through our tight streets? They’re about as loud as garbage trucks and ambulance sirens. Let’s just go ahead and call it noise pollution. We’ve got plenty of that in Philadelphia and buses are good for at least a top five contender (with screaming kids playing in your street, the lady living underneath you who has the loudest little dogs on earth, and incredibly loud Rihanna blasting from car driver’s windows as close rivals).
Imagining all 1,400+ SEPTA buses as electric buses by 2025 is a really delightful daydream
Pilot means they think, maybe just maybe, that if these buses work in South Philly on short and flat routes, they’ll implement them all over the city. SEPTA buys 100 buses a year to cycle out the ones destined for the trash bin, and there are 1,400 regular buses crisscrossing the city as we speak. “This gives us the opportunity to test them out for a couple years before we make a decision as to if we would want to expand that as part of our overall bus fleet,” says GM Burnfield.
They have a lot to learn, like Johanson says, about acceleration rates, battery life, maintenance concerns, charging infrastructure, etc. But he also says they’ve purchased the 25 buses to fully service the routes in question – once it all gets going for good, probably two summers from now, every bus on these two routes will be electric. [In my own head,] I’ll just go ahead and assume that’s the plan for the whole city. Oh, what a dream. Philly needs cleaner air. We need fewer toxins floating about. And Philadelphia posing as a hub of transit innovation is a good look.