The MBTA is staring down two climate goals: electrify nearly 30 percent of its bus fleet by 2028 and 100 percent by 2040.
The latter is a legal obligation, and the former is a self-imposed milestone. Both, however, are being threatened by delays and blown budgets on several projects aimed at buying hundreds of battery electric buses and rebuilding or retrofitting garages to charge the vehicles.
Scott Hamwey, the T’s director of infrastructure planning, said in a statement that the T has run into unanticipated challenges with its garage electrification projects, which is causing the delays.
“While unforeseen cost increases and supply chain issues in the construction market have required a readjustment of our timelines for our initial facilities, the MBTA remains committed to both meeting our goal of a zero-emissions fleet, and providing service that meets the needs of our riders who depend on it,” Hamwey said.
If the T is going to meet its self-imposed goal, as part of its bus electrification plan published last year, its first three rebuilt garages will have to operate at full capacity by 2028, storing around 355 new battery electric buses. But all three of those projects are already behind schedule.
Six more garages will need to be rebuilt or retrofitted and filled with hundreds more buses by 2040 to meet the agency’s legal deadline of 100 percent electrification, according to the T’s plan. The state’s clean energy law, which passed last year, says the T has to stop purchasing fossil fuel-powered buses by Dec. 31, 2030, and operate only “zero-emission” buses by Dec. 31, 2040.
As of last year, the T had 1,148 buses; of which, five were battery electric, 568 diesel-electric hybrid, and the remaining used diesel, compressed natural gas, or were “dual-mode,” using a combination of diesel and overhead wire electricity.
The series of delays and budget problems plaguing bus electrification have come during a year when the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has struggled to maintain even its most basic service. Widespread slow zones cover the subway tracks, and the T has slashed bus and subway frequencies due to challenges in hiring and retaining workers. And the T’s woes are potentially harming the environment in other ways: Riders tell the Globe they are frequently late to work and appointments and are increasingly relying on ride-hailing apps or are saving for a car.
Advocates and lawmakers say MBTA bus electrification must remain a priority to meet the state’s emissions reduction goals and avoid the worst effects of climate change. The new, expanded garages are also key to the T’s bus network redesign project, which aims to grow the bus fleet and increase service by 25 percent from pre-pandemic levels.
“We definitely need a T that is providing reliable service, greater frequency of service, more routes,” said Veena Dharmaraj, director of transportation at Sierra Club Massachusetts. “We need to advance multiple policy initiatives simultaneously. We can’t be looking at one thing first, and another thing four years down the line.”
Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Massachusetts, responsible for 37 percent in 2020. Though public bus emissions make up a small fraction of the sector’s emissions overall, the T’s bus fleet — with predictable routes, bulk procurements, and dedicated charging sites — represents the low-hanging fruit in the state’s pursuit to electrify more complicated sectors, including private vehicles and buildings, said Johannes Epke, staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation Massachusetts.
“If we don’t get this piece right, it doesn’t bode well for the state reaching electrification and climate goals more broadly,” Epke said.
The first garage set to be retrofitted with enough chargers for 35 battery electric buses, in North Cambridge, is now expected to open in 2025, at least a year behind schedule. Design modifications for fire mitigation and “global supply chain issues” increased the budget from $25 million to $43 million, T spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said.
The second garage, located in Quincy, was already a year behind schedule as of February. The T said then that the 120-bus facility would be completed in December 2025. Now, it’s not slated to open until the summer of 2026, Pesaturo said, because of “global supply chain issues.”
The third and largest garage, for 200 buses, on the Arborway in Jamaica Plain, is now projected to open in 2028, Pesaturo said, a year behind schedule.
And the T still hasn’t purchased any new battery electric buses, despite a request for proposals last April that required the first ones to arrive as soon as this month.
The T plans to have its board of directors vote this spring to purchase up to 460 battery electric buses, Pesaturo said. But the purchase would deliver buses at a slower pace than initially planned. Instead of 45 buses arriving next year, Pesaturo said 10 buses would arrive, and chargers will be installed at Cabot garage in South Boston to accommodate the buses while the T finishes the other facilities.
The delays mean that fossil fuel powered buses will continue to operate in most areas where battery electric buses were planned to start carrying passengers next year.
State Representative Steve Owens, a Democrat who represents part of Cambridge and Watertown, said he is disappointed that the North Cambridge garage design issues were not worked out ahead of time. He had hoped the use of diesel buses in the area would be minimal, he said, after the T removed from the area its electric buses that used overhead wires last year.
“We only have a certain number of years left to turn our carbon emissions around,” he said. “The T is not known for acting fast, so we need to get them to act as quickly as possible.”
The delays on the first three garages may put the T behind on its plans to open more new ones at a faster pace in coming years — with two more planned by 2030 and four more by 2040 — said Epke.
“I will be very surprised if they’ll be able to make that time back up,” she said. “That’s a big concern that we’re looking at.”
State Senator Mike Barrett, a Democrat and chair of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, said he is “very concerned about any threat” to the T’s legal obligations to electrify its bus fleet.
“We need an MBTA that can bring projects in on time and on budget,” he said. “You’re going to see significantly cleaner air in the suburbs where people can work remotely and afford electric vehicles, and you’re going to see significantly dirtier air where people hold face-to-face jobs and cannot afford expensive new cars.”
Brian Kane, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, called on the T to create a dedicated leader and team whose sole focus is bus facility modernization, similar to the internal team that finished the Green Line Extension when that project faced major delays in 2016.
“There needs to be a bus facility czar,” Kane said. “It’s too important.”