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MTA’s plan to go all-electric on buses could be soaked by climate change, group warns

December 1, 2020 Jose Martinez, THE CITY
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The MTA faces a series of hurdles in meeting a state mandate of running an all-electric bus fleet by 2040, a new report says — including depots that are at risk for flooding.

The report from the nonprofit Tri-State Transportation Campaign raises the possibility of building pricey new depots in less flood-prone parts of the city, where buses and charging equipment can more easily avoid rising water.

More than 3,400 buses — or nearly 60 percent the current fleet — are stored in neighborhoods with “very high,” “high” or “moderate” risk of flooding, based on 2050 flood projections.

“This is the next big looming crisis for the MTA,” said Nick Sifuentes, executive director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

The group’s report notes that new bus depot construction is “more uncertain” due to the pandemic’s economic hit on the MTA, which has put its next five-year capital improvement program on hold while pushing for billions in federal aid.

An electric bus charging station. Photo: MTA

“The financial fallout could wreck their ability to think about relocating these depots and making them more resilient,” Sifuentes said. “If they don’t manage it, we’re talking about wrecking assets.”

Among the depots located in neighborhoods that are at “very high” risk of flooding is the Michael J. Quill Depot on Manhattan’s West Side. The depot, which houses 276 buses, suffered flooding and pump damage in its sub-basement during Superstorm Sandy in 2012, according to a 2017 MTA resiliency report.

Those in the high-risk category include the Ulmer Park Depot in Brooklyn and the JFK, Far Rockaway and Casey Stengel depots in Queens. While the MTA moved buses to higher ground in advance of Sandy, the report recommends keeping charging equipment for electric buses on higher floors of depots or moved to facilities in areas that are at low or moderate risk of flooding.

“By 2050, a lot of these places are going to be seeing regular flooding,” said Lauren Bailey, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign’s director of climate policy.

An entire ecosystem

The report describes the electric-bus efforts of other transit agencies, citing how overhead charging stations were installed in Miami’s bus garages and how the Antelope Valley Transit Authority in Los Angeles County uses solar panels to power its electric buses for much of the year.

The MTA currently operates 25 electric buses — out of a fleet of 5,800 — on a few routes in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.

The agency has committed to converting the entire fleet by 2040, but the report says the move to a zero-emissions model is a massive undertaking in which shifting to electric buses is just the beginning.

“You’ve got the buses themselves, the depot electrification, the grid management, you’re talking about tearing up street infrastructure,” Sifuentes said. “There is this entire ecosystem that needs to be built out and we’re still in early days for that.”

The MTA’s Michael J. Quill Depot on the West Side is said to be in a “very high” risk flood zone. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Craig Cipriano, the head of buses at the MTA, said the agency is intent on meeting the state’s mandate for an all-electric fleet in two decades but acknowledged the pandemic’s impact on planned bus upgrades.

The agency’s $51 billion 2020-2024 capital plan, which was put on hold in June, had called for $1 billion to buy 500 new electric buses and to modify up to eight depots. The 2015-2019 capital program calls for the MTA to spend $25 million on 60 electric buses and depot chargers.

The buses travel around 80 miles before needing to be recharged, said Cipriano, who agreed that converting to an all-electric fleet is not simple.

‘A whole different thing’

He said the MTA’s flood-zone options include elevating charging equipment in depots and installing more on-route stations similar to ones at the Williamsburg Bridge Plaza in Brooklyn and near 42nd Street and 11th Avenue in Manhattan.

“It’s a whole different thing,” he told THE CITY. “We have to work with Con Edison, the New York Power Authority, the manufacturers of the buses because that technology is maturing.”

The transition team for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has called for cities of more than 100,000 people to move to zero-emissions public transportation, including on buses.

“We’re fully committed to our all-electric fleet by 2040,” Cipriano said.

Sifuentes said the MTA can’t afford to lose focus on strengthening depots against future storms.

“It is making sure we do this thing right so we don’t eventually run into an asset crisis that’s even bigger than COVID,” he said.

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