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Has Mass. missed the bus on electric vehicles?

The state has three immediate opportunities to make the transition.

A Boston bus instructor tests a battery-powered bus on the Silver Line in 2019.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Electric trucks provide an important way for the United States to reduce pollution. Like electric cars, which are becoming commonplace, large trucks can also run on batteries, and many delivery trucks are increasingly going electric.

So far, Massachusetts has largely missed the bus in this transition. The state has three immediate opportunities to change this.

The recently passed federal infrastructure act provides up to $5 billion for electric school buses; $7.5 billion to build out a national network of electric vehicle charging stations; and $5 billion to support new zero-emission transit buses. These investments will bring direct benefits to Massachusetts. The state, for example, will receive $63 million in total over the next five years to support charging infrastructure.


Transportation accounts for nearly a third of US greenhouse gas emissions, making it the largest source of this pollution. Large trucks and buses are a major source of these emissions despite accounting for only 4 percent of the vehicles on the road. Moving to electric trucks would eliminate nearly 5 gigatons of climate pollution by 2050. This would be a critical contribution toward limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius — as the United States and over 190 countries agreed to at COP26, the United Nations Climate Conference in November.

Heavy-duty trucks and other diesel-burning vehicles are also a major source of toxic air pollution. These vehicles tend to converge at industrial and commercial facilities, and the health impact of their operations is concentrated within neighborhoods. Across Boston, 1 in 5 cases of childhood asthma is estimated to be attributable to pollution, but in neighborhoods with the most traffic-related pollution, including Roxbury and South Boston, it can be up to 1 in 3.

Governor Charlie Baker recently outlined his priority projects for the infrastructure investments already allocated to the state. This includes the purchase of 80 electric buses for the MBTA. The state should also direct a portion of these federal funds to develop more powerful charging systems needed for electric trucks.


It can do more by pursuing federal funds included in the infrastructure bill and made available through competitive grants. Through these grant programs, the state can increase the number of electric school buses in Massachusetts, like those already on our roads in Beverly, Concord, and Springfield. It can also expand its fleet of electric public buses, as transit agencies in the Pioneer Valley and Martha’s Vineyard have.

These actions are a critical starting point to jump-start our transition to a zero-emission truck and bus fleet. A version of the Build Back Better bill — currently under debate in the US Senate — would build upon the infrastructure deal with further investments in the US economy and climate-change initiatives. Under BBB, our transition to electric trucks stands to be advanced by $5 billion to electrify large trucks, such as trash haulers; nearly $9 billion for federal fleet electrification, including funding to support a transition of the US Postal Service fleet; and $3.5 billion to reduce air pollution around large ports. In total, the bill contains $38 billion in direct investment and tax credits to support the purchase of zero-emission trucks and the development of charging infrastructure. The Senate needs to pass this bill.

Another opportunity Massachusetts has is in the adoption of the advanced clean truck and heavy-duty omnibus rules, currently under consideration by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. Adoption of the rules would ensure that electric vehicles account for an increasing number of trucks on our roads and that any new diesel trucks sold meet the highest standard for pollution control. Recent analysis by M.J. Bradley & Associates found nearly $2 billion worth of health benefits through 2050 from the adoption of these rules.


More state leadership is needed too, especially to ensure that the pace of our ambition matches the need to protect families from harmful pollution. Bills recently introduced by Representatives Christine Barber and Steve Owens and Senator Brendan Crighton would set a timeline for full MBTA electrification. This is critical as clear, ambitious timeframes direct the attention of key stakeholders, such as utilities and fleet managers, to start today to build for the future we need. The state should also set a time frame for completing our transition to zero-emission trucks, as has been done in other states.

Electric trucks and buses are ready to play an important role in the state’s transition to a zero-emission future. These vehicles can complement improvements in public transit, better bike infrastructure, and more walkable communities across the state. Realizing this zero-emission future, though, will take sustained focus and effort. Massachusetts has several near-term opportunities that build on each other. We need to seize these opportunities and move swiftly to a zero-emission future.


Jason Mathers is senior director overseeing Vehicles and Freight Strategy at the Environmental Defense Fund.