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OPINION

The MBTA’s shift to zero emissions for its bus lines is happening

The MBTA will begin procurement of 80 battery electric buses this year, which will enter service starting in 2023.

The 110 MBTA bus is pictured on Chelsea Street in Everett.
The 110 MBTA bus is pictured on Chelsea Street in Everett.Jim Davis/Globe Staff/File

The MBTA is embarking on the biggest transformation of its bus system since the streetcar rail network was converted to rubber-tired vehicles in 1922. Like the earlier transition, the shift to zero emissions won’t happen overnight, but it’s happening sooner than you think.

The MBTA is committed to reducing vehicle carbon emissions from our buses while also providing reliable, competitive bus service for our riders. To that end, the T is pursuing an ambitious plan to deploy battery electric bus (BEB) technology across its entire bus fleet and, in the interim, is taking immediate steps to use cleaner vehicles to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants. We, along with many of our big city peers, believe that BEB technology is the most efficient, effective way to eliminate tailpipe emissions across our system. The MBTA will begin procurement of 80 BEBs this year, and these new buses will enter service starting in 2023. The majority of these 80 vehicles will replace the oldest diesel buses in the MBTA fleet.

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As we procure and deploy BEBs, we will also continue to retire and replace older vehicles throughout our network with the cleanest vehicles possible. For example, the dual-mode buses currently used on the Silver Line were new in 2004 and are in need of replacement to ensure reliable service for riders in Chelsea, East Boston, and the Seaport. Due to facility limitations and the urgent timeline, we are purchasing enhanced electric hybrid buses to provide a new and improved Silver Line fleet within the next 12 months. Although not fully electric, these hybrid buses are powered by one of the cleanest engines in the MBTA in terms of GHG emissions and air pollutants. The Chelsea and East Boston portions of these routes will see a 15 to 20 percent reduction in GHG emissions and at least a 95 percent reduction in particulate matter and NOx — the harmful pollutants affecting air quality. New geofencing technology will improve on this even more, allowing Silver Line buses to run in battery mode, with the engine off, for portions of their trip through these neighborhoods.

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Going electric is not as simple as buying a new fleet of BEBs to replace the MBTA’s 1,100 buses. To implement this clean technology at such a large scale, the T must also upgrade and modernize its maintenance facilities to support a fleet of electric buses. The T is taking a significant first step with plans to open a new facility in Quincy in 2024, which will have the capacity to house up to 120 BEBs. The century-old Quincy facility is being replaced first because its structural limitations prevent all but our oldest and least energy-efficient buses from being operated there.

The Quincy facility is only the beginning. The T will move to open two more BEB facilities by 2028. One of these facilities will support service south of downtown Boston in Jamaica Plain, Hyde Park, Roxbury, and Dorchester, and another one to the north will serve Malden, Everett, Revere, Chelsea, and East Boston. Both facilities will be built to support BEBs from day one, meaning that bus emissions could be largely eliminated from many corridors in these communities by 2030. So, although replacing the Silver Line fleet next year represents a significant emissions reduction in the near term, it’s just a brief interim step on the road to zero emissions buses as soon as six years later.

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The T remains focused on both short- and long-term plans to implement cleaner technologies across the bus fleet. Our current bus purchase allows us to significantly reduce emissions on the two Silver Line routes serving East Boston and Chelsea. Our next steps will eliminate tailpipe emissions altogether for many more routes and communities. The MBTA has put forward an ambitious bus modernization plan to achieve the Commonwealth’s 2050 decarbonization goals. This approach positions the MBTA as a leader in fleet electrification, both within the Commonwealth, and nationally. This transition will not be easy or inexpensive, but the T looks forward to continuing to work with community partners to make progress on these fronts. Together we can move our riders in a way that leverages the best, most reliable green technology and protects our environment.

Steve Poftak is the general manager of the MBTA.