As the MBTA works to stay on top of Boston’s transit and commuter needs — a challenge made more difficult given a recent spate of train derailments — the transportation agency is making major investments to upgrade its aging vehicles and infrastructure.
Part of the MBTA’s plan? New energy-efficient buses, some fully battery powered and others hybrids.
Officials plan to add nearly 200 of the buses to the MBTA’s fleet this summer, part of an ongoing effort to prioritize sustainable options. The buses are in addition to the authority’s plan to spend $2 billion on improvements to its subway system.
Five battery-powered electric buses will serve the Silver Line, which includes South and East Boston, Logan Airport, and Chelsea, while 194 hybrids will be in use all around Boston. Jeff Gonneville, MBTA deputy general manager, said he hopes at least one or two of the electric buses will be ready for service by late July.
Unlike the MBTA’s current fleet of hybrid buses, the five 60-foot electric prototypes, purchased through a $10 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration, do not use diesel fuel.
T workers are testing their electric charging capabilities to see how far they can travel before needing to be returned to the bus garage on Southampton Street to be plugged in; the estimate is 130 miles, Gonneville said.
“The agency has really worked hard to be responsible in our evolution of our bus fleets,” Gonneville said, noting that the MBTA has been shifting toward energy-efficient transit options since the early 2000s.
The battery-powered buses are just the latest step in that process, and are helping the T “think about the challenges and the advantages” of electric vehicles, he said. “Those are the future.”
Members of the MBTA’s testing team recently took an electric bus out of the garage for a spin. The ride, a modified version of the SL-2 route, took the vehicle about 25 minutes. The interior of the electric bus looked essentially identical to any other bus, and the ride was similar as well, with one major change: It was eerily quiet, without the roar of the engine that passengers have come to expect.
Bus instructor Lorraine Landsburg, who’s been with the T for nearly 25 years and was driving the test bus, said the engine is so quiet that you “barely know when it’s on.”
“This bus is great,” said Landsburg, while navigating through traffic. “You feel the difference between this” and the diesel ones.
Landsburg said testing has been “pretty much smooth sailing,” but acknowledged the electric bus takes a bit of getting used to. “It’s sort of like a learning curve,” she said, likening the process to the adjustment period when driving a friend’s car for the first time.
One of the passengers on the test ride was William Wolfgang, the T’s director of vehicle engineering.
“This is our first introduction into batteries, so we’re going to learn a lot from this,” Wolfgang said. “I’m extremely excited about the capabilities and what it can do.”
The new bus was spotted on a test run along Washington Street earlier in June by 19-year-old transportation enthusiast Jordan King, who noticed that it was “very quiet, very smooth . . . you can barely hear it coming down the street.”
Though the vehicles the T is testing are prototypes, they’re far from the first battery-powered buses in use around the country — or the world.
Nearly 425,000 electric buses were used around the globe last year, with 421,000 of those employed by China, according to a report from BloombergNEF, an energy research organization.
The United States, by contrast, had a meager 300 buses in 2018. Nearly 50 percent of that fleet is based in California, according to Nick Albanese, a research associate at BloombergNEF. The state has been a leader in the push toward electric vehicles; last December, California’s clean air agency mandated that all new public transit buses must be fully electric starting in 2029.
Some US cities zeroing in on zero-emission vehicles include Seattle, Honolulu, and New York City. And now, Boston has joined them.
“I think it makes sense,” Albanese said of the MBTA adding battery-powered buses. Electric buses have lower operational costs, he said. And besides, “diesel buses are loud, and they have high particulate emissions.”
As recent as five years ago, Albanese said, the United States had next to no electric buses, due to high production costs and short battery life spans. But costs are coming down, and battery lives are going up. So get ready for a surge in electric buses — up to nearly 5,000 by the end of 2025, if BloombergNEF’s forecasts are right.
The MBTA will also introduce 194 hybrid buses over a one-year period starting in August, allowing the agency to phase out nearly 200 diesel buses that were purchased in 2004. The hybrids, which cost nearly $143 million combined, can switch between diesel and electric power, Gonneville said.
When a hybrid bus is idling at a red light or driving at under 5 miles per hour, it uses electric power, then switches to diesel fuel for faster speeds, he said.
“We are seeing right now that almost 40 percent of the time . . . the engine is not running, and that’s substantial” for reducing emissions, Gonneville said.
Compared to traditional diesel vehicles, the new hybrid buses are expected to save 2.8 million gallons of fuel and emit 41,000 fewer tons of greenhouse gases over their lifetimes, according to a 2018 MBTA presentation.
“You can’t have diesel buses anymore, you’ve got to start looking at sustainability and what’s better for the environment,” King said. “It’s starting to look like a really good future.”