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Will your diesel bus be electric soon? Metro Transit eyeing the switch

Metro Transit is contemplating a diesel-less future, but it may be a long, long way off.

Metro Transit is contemplating a diesel-less future, but it may be a long, long way off. David Joles, Star Tribune

“Public transportation” is a phrase that comes up a lot during discussions about climate change, but seldom as one of its causes.

Even so, since summer, the Coalition for Clean Transportation -- a team-up between climate action group MN350 and other environmental and social justice groups -- has been requesting that Metro Transit do something about the Twin Cities’ bus fleet. Specifically: Ditch the diesel and go electric.

MN350 spends a lot of its time fighting the proliferation of oil and gas pipelines, organizer Noa Shavit-Lonstein says; few people think of public transit when they think of assaults on the environment. But the fact is, transportation is one of the leading causes of climate change, and all those tailpipes spewing at once contribute to the 2,000 premature deaths a year caused by air pollution, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. That goes double for the lower-income urban centers that rely on buses the most.

“We can’t just fight these suppliers [oil and gas pipelines] without also fighting the demand for them,” Shavit-Lonstein says.

Metro Transit agrees that buses could use cleaner energy. Spokesperson Howie Padilla says the organization already has 134 or so hybrid buses in its fleet, plus eight electric ones planned for the anticipated C line (to begin service next summer), and it’s been looking for opportunities to be more climate friendly. So, on Monday, Metro Transit announced a plan to purchase more electric buses in the next three years. And, by 2022, maybe stop buying diesel buses altogether.

Does that mean the Twin Cities fleet is on its way to being all-electric? Not even close, Padilla says.

“You can’t flip a switch and have every bus go to electric technology untested,” he says. Currently, Metro Transit has something between 900 and 1,000 buses trundling around, and there’s no way the organization is going to trade them all out for electric buses without knowing how the new models will fare in, say, below-zero cold or 100-degree heat.

“The last thing we want is to invest in electric technology and find out it doesn’t work in our service,” he says.

So these new electric buses will be given a trial by fire and ice, tested alongside their diesel counterparts. The mood as they’re moving forward, Padilla says, is somewhere between excited and cautious. If all goes well, the Twin Cities might be purchasing its last few gas guzzlers in 2021.