QUINCY — Building a new 350,000-plus-square-foot, three-story bus maintenance facility here to replace one of the T’s oldest bus garages officially got underway Monday.
Governor Charlie Baker, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority General Manager Steve Poftak, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and other state and local officials gathered inside the abandoned Lowe’s in Quincy to celebrate the groundbreaking of the $372 million facility they said marks a new era of electrified bus transit.
But transportation and environmental advocates are raising questions about the eye-popping cost of the facility and the T’s decision to use diesel components for its electric buses there.
“When other transit agencies in high-cost parts of the country are able to build facilities at a significantly cheaper cost, it can’t help but raise eyebrows about whether taxpayers and farepayers are getting good value for their money,” said Chris Dempsey, a former Massachusetts assistant secretary of transportation and current Democratic candidate for state auditor.
The MBTA isn’t the first transit agency to build a new bus facility for electric buses. In recent years, Washington, D.C., Montreal, Minneapolis, and others have embarked on similar projects as transit agencies race to cut emissions from fossil fuels and avoid the worst effects of climate change.
In Massachusetts, the transportation sector accounts for the largest portion of the state’s emissions, and electrifying all kinds of transportation is central to the state’s goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
Advocates said it’s important for the MBTA to look at other agencies to make sure it is getting the best bang for its buck as it overhauls bus garages. The MBTA estimates that the Quincy facility will cost $372 million, including $210 million for construction and $44 million for real estate, according to a breakdown provided by MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo, and will be able to accommodate 120 buses.
“Knowing that transit agencies in Montreal and DC are building or have recently built new bus garages for less than $1 million per vehicle, we believe that the T has an excellent opportunity to learn from peer agencies across North America,” said Ari Ofsevit, Boston program senior manager at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.
The new Quincy facility will replace a 104-year-old bus garage nearby and is slated to open in 2024. It will be the first of the MBTA’s nine bus garages that the agency plans to upgrade, with a new facility at 500 Arborway in Jamaica Plain up next for completion in 2027.
Gregory Sullivan, the Pioneer Institute’s research director and a former state inspector general, urged the T to update its fleet and facilities modernization plan, which in 2017 estimated it would cost $808 million to upgrade or replace its existing garages.
“The cost of this garage should set off the alarm bells at the MBTA finance department,” he said. “I’d be a lot more confident about this if they had a plan in place.”
Baker said he expects the Quincy facility will be consistent with building and safety codes at the local, state, and federal levels.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of focus on the buses; there’s been a lot less focus on the facilities you actually need to maintain and operate them and repair them,” he said speaking to reporters Monday. “We have a pretty decent track record of coming in at or below budget on most of our capital programming at the MBTA, and I expect this one will be consistent with that as well.”
Most of the MBTA’s more than 1,150 buses rely on fossil fuels, either diesel or compressed natural gas. In 2019, the MBTA bought five battery-electric buses for the Silver Line to test their performance and has found that their range is greatly reduced during the winter’s coldest days, according to two people working on the Quincy project.
When the Quincy garage opens in 2024, it will be home to 45 battery-electric buses and around 45 of the agency’s older diesel buses, according to Pesaturo. In 2025, the MBTA anticipates purchasing another 75 electric buses for the Quincy facility to take advantage of its full electric capacity.
The MBTA plans to include diesel heaters on all of its electric buses to extend their range on the coldest days. But advocates say that’s a mistake.
The continued investment in fossil fuels for electric buses is misplaced, said Veena Dharmaraj, director of transportation at Massachusetts Sierra Club, when technology already exists to enable buses to charge during their route to extend their range in cold weather.
“Pioneer Valley has in-route charging, Martha’s Vineyard has technology that allows for charging at bus stops,” she said. “When we have examples in our state, it’s something that the MBTA should be more proactive about planning.”
A Sierra Club report last year found that fully electrifying the MBTA’s buses would reduce the fleet’s greenhouse gas emissions by 97 percent and save the MBTA more than $175 million in lifetime operating costs.
Poftak said the MBTA considered in-route charging but decided against it for the Quincy facility. Instead, the MBTA analyzed all of the Quincy bus lines and modified some of them so that the buses will be able to complete their full routes and only return to the garage for charging — while relying on diesel heaters.
“I think . . . the cost of the investment did not provide the benefit that we thought,” he said. “We’ve been able to set it up so that all of our charging needs are taken care of here at this facility.”
Staci Rubin, the vice president of environmental justice at the Conservation Law Foundation, said opening the new Quincy facility with diesel buses and electric buses that have diesel heaters will be a missed opportunity.
“We need all hands on deck, including from the MBTA, the largest transit agency in New England, to be contributing to greenhouse gas emissions reduction,” she said. “This is the time for them to figure out technology challenges and figure out what technology is going to work best that is fossil fuel free.”
Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.