TriMet bus at stop sign

swong95765 via Flickr

All Aboard! Accelerating TriMet’s transition to electric buses

This is part of a series of articles on Electrifying Transportation.

TriMet is Oregon’s largest transit agency, serving 1.5 million people in the Portland metro area. Of the 100 million trips people took on TriMet last year, nearly 60 million were on diesel buses. TriMet is the single largest purchaser of diesel fuel in the state.

Electric buses are rapidly becoming the preferred alternative to diesel, yet TriMet continues to use our public dollars to buy polluting diesel buses. It is time for TriMet to make an ambitious commitment to transitioning their diesel bus fleet to electric buses.

Electric buses reduce climate pollution

The transportation of goods and people creates more climate pollution in Oregon than any other sector, nearly 40% of carbon emissions. Diesel and gasoline emissions from transportation are the most significant remaining barriers to reaching Oregon’s climate goals.

TriMet by the numbers
  ·  Largest purchaser of diesel fuel in Oregon
  ·  675 diesel buses in the fleet
  ·  60 million bus trips annually
  ·  Buys appx. 40 diesel buses each year
  ·  Buses run for 12-16 years

Electrifying the transportation system is one of the key strategies to reducing climate pollution from transportation, along with cleaner fuels and reducing the need to drive. With Oregon’s relatively clean electrical grid, buses and cars that run on electricity are powered over two thirds by clean energy, and our power is getting even cleaner thanks to legislation passed in 2016 that eliminates coal-fired power and doubles renewable electricity like wind and solar.

TriMet is behind the curve on an affordable, clean energy solution

Transitioning to electric buses isn’t new, and with electric batteries now able to power through an entire route, transit agencies around the country are making the switch. For example, both Los Angeles and King County, the largest transit systems in California and Washington state, have committed to transitioning their entire fleet to electric buses, with King County planning to purchase 120 electric buses by 2020. Other transit agencies are on the path as well, including Lane Transit District in Eugene, OR and agencies in Albuquerque, NM, Indianapolis, IN, Antelope Valley, CA, and San Joaquin Valley, CA.

In addition, electric buses actually cost less than diesel and hybrid buses. While the up-front purchase price is higher than for a diesel bus, the fuel savings and reduced maintenance are so significant – largely due to fewer moving parts, fewer repairs, lack of need to change fluids, and longer brake life – that overall cost is lower over the life of the bus.

Electric buses support better health by reducing air pollution and carbon emissions.

Diesel fuel is a potent air pollutant that is dangerous to our health. High levels of diesel pollution in our neighborhoods increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes, cardiovascular disease, asthma and other respiratory problems. Multnomah County is in the top 2% of U.S. counties in exposure to diesel pollution, and the entire Portland metro area experiences unhealthy diesel exposure. Many of the region’s most heavily-polluted corridors disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income residents.  At the same time, EPA estimates an electric bus can save up to $55,000 in health savings alone as compared to a diesel bus.

Today, all of TriMet’s buses are run with diesel. They plan to pilot five new electric buses by the end of 2018, but have not committed to anything more ambitious. TriMet has nearly 700 diesel buses in its fleet and buys dozens of diesel buses each year. These buses remain in service for up to 16 years, so every year they purchase new diesel buses locks us into diesel pollution for another decade-and-a-half, well into the 2030.

Now is the time for TriMet to transition

We’re calling on TriMet to commit this year to stop buying new diesel buses by 2020. We’re not alone: The City of Portland and Multnomah County, as part of their commitments to 100% clean energy, have called for TriMet's rapid transition to electric buses. Numerous neighborhood associations, in­cluding Southeast Uplift, South Tabor, Richmond, Hosford-Abernethy, and Sunnyside, have also called on TriMet to go electric.

As part of the commitment to transitioning to electric buses, TriMet should develop plans for prioritizing electric buses in low income communities of color with high diesel pollution, and incorporate planning for an electric fleet into decisions like electric wiring for garage retrofits. They can and should do this while expanding transit service into underserved areas.

In addition, electric buses should be incorporated into TriMet’s plans for the Division Transit Project. TriMet anticipates buying 25 additional buses in mid-2018 for a route that cuts through a high pollution, low income corridor on the underserved east side of Gresham and Portland. This is the perfect location to start comprehensive electric bus use. The Powell garage will also be significantly renovated as part of the project, with the opportunity to plumb the garage for EV-charging. Unfortunately, TriMet appears to be headed toward investing in even more diesel buses for this project. With the new bus service for this corridor not starting until 2021, the new diesel buses bought now could still be running on our roads in 2037.

Electric buses reduce pollution, improve public health, lower lifecycle costs to maintain and operate the transit agency, and help to achieve our state and local climate goals. TriMet, it’s time to get on the electric bus.

Meredith Connolly's picture

Oregon Director

, Climate Solutions

Meredith develops, advocates for and implements clean energy and climate change policies and programs to accelerate Oregon’s transition to a clean energy, low-carbon economy.

Prior to joining Climate Solutions, she was a Climate and Energy Attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. In that capacity, she advanced policies for deploying renewable energy, creating clean energy jobs and increasing energy efficiency in the U.S. and internationally. She also implemented programs to protect public health and improve climate resilience to heat waves and air pollution in India’s growing cities. Before NRDC, Meredith practiced law in the private sector.

Meredith serves as a board member on the Portland Utility Board, and is a member of the Oregon and California State Bar Associations. She holds a JD from Boston College Law School and a Bachelor of Science in Political Science and French from Santa Clara University.

In her free time, Meredith enjoys exploring her incredible home state of Oregon with her husband and two kids, and rooting loudly as a member of the Portland Timbers Army.