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Battery-powered buses could be route to a cleaner T

Could a battery-powered bus test, coming next year, be key to a more efficient MBTA?
Could a battery-powered bus test, coming next year, be key to a more efficient MBTA?Lane Turner / Globe Staff

Battery-powered buses could signal a more efficient, cleaner MBTA.

If you're waiting for the T — and you're willing to wait a year for a new test bus — you might be able to breathe easier.

A new battery-powered bus set to be tested early next year may bring a zero-emission vehicle to Boston streets and, in the process, help ease the T's train- and bus-purchasing woes.

Supported by a federal grant, the T is ordering five 60-foot, no-emission, battery powered models that will be used to help develop specifications for the next procurement of hundreds of buses.


Those include replacements for more than 500 diesel buses now in service that are being slowly replaced by hybrid gas-electric and compressed natural gas models. There are also all-electric trackless trolleys running in Cambridge and Watertown and, peculiar to the T, buses for the Silver Line's Seaport, Logan Airport, and Chelsea routes, which use a trolley pole for part of the trip and switch to a diesel motor for the rest.

Diversity is usually an asset, but not necessarily when trying to acquire buses or train cars. As Henry Ford proved a century ago, mass production lowers prices and speeds up delivery time, and a one-size-fits-all model is far preferable to boutique custom-made vehicles. The T has no end of those; different dimensions in tunnels and station heights mean that Red Line trains can't run in Orange or Blue Line subways, regardless of paint schemes. Green Line trolleys are a different species altogether, and there are numerous varieties of buses on the road running on different power sources.

That could change, and bring a new bus standard to Boston, if the battery buses shine in their test, and there's little reason to believe they won't. Seattle last year ordered 120 of them, and they've been in service around the world for nearly a decade — including in Changchun, China, coincidentally where the T's new Orange Line cars are being partially manufactured.


There are some issues to work out, such as infrastructure for charging stations, and though it's hard to imagine a downside, there are trade-offs. The trackless trolleys are highly popular, even beloved, in Cambridge and Watertown.

Like rail tracks, the overhead lines could symbolize a commitment to transit investment in an area that makes it impossible for the T to change the route capriciously. But few can imagine the T unnecessarily provoking the ire of Cantabrigians by relocating the routes. And as quaint as the trackless trolleys may be, sentimentality shouldn't be the final determinant of transit policy.

The battery buses could bring better buying power to the T and cleaner air, which is priceless. With this test, the T is headed down the right road.