Four neighborhood associations and the Southeast Uplift neighborhood coalition are pushing TriMet to purchase electric buses for the agency's next big project along Southeast Division Street.
But TriMet officials are still hesitant to take the leap, as the Tribune reported in January for this project or any other large commitment to an all-electric fleet, despite other transit agencies making the jump.
Seattle's King County Metro Transit committed to acquiring 120 all-electric battery buses by 2020, and Los Angeles announced two weeks ago its commitment to an electric fleet by 2030.
The Richmond and South Tabor neighborhood associations, and the Southeast Uplift coalition, have sent letters while their counterparts in Sunnyside and Hosford-Abernethy plan to send letters soon, detailing benefits such as lowering diesel emissions and noise pollution for residents. Richmond, South Tabor and Hosford-Abernethy all include stretches of the Division Street corridor, where TriMet plans to expand service between Portland and Gresham by 2021. Sunnyside extends south to Hawthorne, 10 blocks from the corridor.
"I think that the Division transit project holds a lot of promise for improving transit in this corridor," said John Carr, a member of the South Tabor neighborhood association and a representative to the project for Southeast Uplift. "That said, it also brings certain impacts, and it brings larger buses, more frequent service into neighborhoods that continue to become more dense. Electric buses represent an opportunity to soften some of those impacts of noise, emissions and climate impacts."
Products don't fit corridor needs
While TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane supports eventual electric bus adoption, including potentially for the Division Transit Project, he said there's nothing suitable for this corridor on the market yet. The agency will place orders for buses used on the Division Project by the first quarter of 2018.
"Frankly, it would be a really desirable thing, I think, in this very heavily congested corridor to have electric technology, so I think we're well-disposed to consider it," McFarlane said at a June 28 TriMet board of directors meeting. "As we speak, there's not a product that really fits the bill — an articulated bus with electric technology that's been tested and proven at least for a year or so someplace else."
The transit agency is waiting for more testing on electric buses in the market, since it was burned in the past. A first batch of four electric hybrid buses purchased back in 2002 didn't perform well, according to the agency. They required a lot of maintenance and didn't get good gas mileage. Those buses were recycled out of the fleet in 2012.
The only 60-foot articulated electric bus operating in North America was delivered to Southern California's Antelope Valley Transit Authority in May, although other agencies in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Indianapolis, Indiana, are considering them for bus rapid transit lines. The larger 60-foot bus is what TriMet wants for the Division Transit Project, while most of its fleet consists of 40-foot buses.
McFarlane said he planned to ask the nonprofit Center for Transportation and the Environment (CTE), to conduct an independent assessment of whether electric buses will be appropriate for the corridor. CTE is working with TriMet to deploy the agency's next five all-electric, battery-powered buses planned to hit pavement in 2018, acquired through a government grant.
The agency wants to know what the garage would look like, what on-route charging would look like and "the mix between the two."
"It would really push the technology pretty far, but I want to get an independent assessment of that before we make any final call," McFarlane said.
Diesel bus emissions deadly
Advocates say they're tired of the stalling, as the agency adds more diesel buses to its fleet each year in the normal course of business. Those stay on the road longer than a decade.
Diesel exhaust is a known carcinogen. The Department of Environmental Quality, based on national data, say an estimated 460 Oregonians die prematurely each year because of diesel pollution.
"There needs to be a plan. Those (diesel) buses are going to stay in the fleet 12 to 16 years, and that's a problem in our view," said David Van't Hof, Oregon director at Climate Solutions. "Their current trajectory is a very slow road to transition, and we're trying to help them change that trajectory."
Electric propulsion eliminates diesel bus exhaust and its harmful effects.
Some TriMet board members, who govern the agency and are appointed by the governor, have expressed concerns about the newer buses.
"I'm kind of worried about the technology being there," said board President Bruce Warner, asking McFarlane to respond to "expectation versus reality" following neighborhood association pressure at the June 28 meeting.
"I think your plan of attack is a good one," he said in response to McFarlane's desire for an independent review by CTE. Board member Joe Esmonde agreed, saying that like Hop Fastpass, they wanted to give it a lot of time "so we feel comfortable with the system for our customers."
TriMet spokeswoman Roberta Altstadt added, "We want to make sure we're not going to put a bunch of money into these buses and have them not work out for us, which could then impact the Division Transit line."
Electric buses cost upwards of $700,000, while diesels go for around $400,000.
A 2015 study by Spokane Transit concluded that electric buses were the best option over the long-term, although it noted significantly higher costs when electric vehicles needed to be charged while in service. However, things have changed since then, as electric buses can be charged at night.
The Antelope Valley bus requires two to three hours of charge time after 275 miles of service.
"If you look at our Division Transit line, we would see a full charge time really quickly ... to reach that mile point. So would that make sense?" TriMet spokeswoman Angela Murphy said.
Altstadt said TriMet is excited about House Bill 2017, a transportation package that passed the Legislature in July that will provide funds to transit agencies.
"Part of that is addressing congestion and looking at other reliable resources, such as natural gas or electric. So that's something we'll do, as part of the package," Altstadt said.
But a larger commitment to all-electric buses will await more observation of other agencies' technology and TriMet's first five electric buses next year.
"Once we see how they perform and how they perform in our environment, that will really give us much more knowledge as we look to move forward," Altstadt said.
The lack of urgency still concerns advocates such as Carr and Van't Hof.
Van't Hof is worried about the ongoing impacts to climate change. An electric bus, depending on how the electricity is produced, can produce much lower, or even zero carbon emissions.
"We don't have time to wait — we need to take action," he said.
Carr echoed the sentiment: "The urgency is staying right up with the tech so that by 2037 we're still not running large diesel buses down the heart of the city."