The MTA’s ambitious plan to fully electrify its bus fleet by 2040 will need enough power to light up close to 200,000 homes, officials said Wednesday.
The state transit agency, which presently owns just 15 electric buses that run along two routes, has pledged that all 5,800 coaches in its fleet will be zero emission in less than two decades.
At an MTA board meeting Wednesday, officials outlined the multiple hurdles involved in transforming existing vehicle depots across the city, building new ones and securing the power to keep electric buses on the go.
“It’s not like the challenges are going to stop once we get the buses,” said MTA Chairperson and CEO Janno Lieber. “There are 12,000 operators and 3,500 mechanics to train and we’ll need to install chargers and related infrastructure at all of our 28 bus depots — these are, at best, mid-20th century buildings that need to be retrofitted completely to accommodate this 21st century technology.”
At an Earth Day announcement last week, Lieber and Gov. Kathy Hochul said the first 60 new electric buses will begin arriving later this year at six depots across all five boroughs.
But at Wednesday’s board meeting, where Hochul also appeared, officials detailed the speed bumps that come with the fleet revamp that’s set to accelerate between 2025 and 2026, when an additional 470 electric buses are supposed to begin hitting the road.
“What happens in 2025 and 2026 is going to be the measure of success when you see hundreds of buses online,” Renae Reynolds, executive director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an environmentally minded nonprofit, told THE CITY.
“That is going to be the real test to see how the collaboration with the utilities is going in terms of supplying the energy they’re going to need.”
Officials estimate the MTA will need about 370 additional megawatts of new power — enough to light a small city — to fuel the hundreds of expected new buses. That’s well above its existing capacity of 30 megawatts.
“It is a lot of power that we are talking about,” said Sunil Nair, chief officer of the MTA’s zero emissions fleet transformation. “We cannot do this alone.”
Nair said the MTA is also looking into ways to share power with the subway system but already has a deal with Con Edison for 10 additional megawatts of power at one depot.
“The fact that they mentioned it in the board meeting makes it seem just a little more tangible and not just science fiction,” Reynolds said, specifically noting the plan to use subway juice. “It’s all nice to hear, but is it operational, can it be actual?”
A spokesperson for Con Edison said the utility supports the transition to electric vehicles because they are supposed to be helpful to the environment, as well as the economy.
“We are investing to fortify our grid to meet the state’s aggressive transportation electrification goals, including the MTA’s all-electric bus fleet,” said Con Ed spokesperson Allan Drury. “We are working with the City of New York’s Department of Transportation to install 120 charging plugs at curbside and offering incentives for the installation of chargers throughout New York City and Westchester County.”
Con Edison preparing for what Drury called a “significant increase in peak demand” brought on increased electrification of buildings and vehicles.
As part of the overhaul of its fleet, the MTA will also have to retrofit existing depots, including some in flood-prone areas, to keep charging equipment and buses safe.
In 2020, THE CITY reported that Tri-State Transportation Campaign found that more than 3,400 buses — or more than half the current fleet — are housed in neighborhoods that are at “very high,” “high” or “moderate” risk of flooding, according to 2050 projections.
“I would hope that as they are thinking about investing in and designing these depots, they consider which depots are in the floodplain, which are going to be vulnerable to storm impacts,” Reynolds said.
The MTA last month issued a request for proposals for its first electric depot, which would house 200 buses next to the existing Gun Hill Road depot in The Bronx. The agency also has plans to redevelop the existing Jamaica depot, to make room for 60 zero-emissions buses.
Physical and Fiscal Challenges
Nair acknowledged the MTA’s electrification challenges extend beyond acquiring more overhead charging equipment and redesigning depots, saying the agency has to find the best time and rate to charge buses, all while keeping the existing fleet in service.
“You have stop-and-go traffic, you have cold weather conditions of the Northeast, you have elevation changes,” Nair said. “All of these are additional issues with battery manufacturers and we have to make sure that our bus manufacturers understand this so that they build our buses appropriate to the New York City region.”
Officials noted electric buses tend to be about 60% more expensive — both to purchase and to operate — than diesel buses.
The MTA’s current $51 billion, five-year capital plan includes more than $1 billion to buy up to 500 zero-emissions buses and Lieber said Wednesday that the agency is seeking more than $100 million in federal funding for the next phase of overhauling its bus fleet.
“The MTA carries 14% of the nation’s bus passengers and operates 10% of all the buses in the United States,” Lieber said. “Subways is even more percentage wise, but buses is huge — we deserve comparable funding.”
Reynolds said resiliency and environmental concerns must be central to the MTA’s electrification efforts.
“Fiscal hawkishness can’t be the kind of thing that drives this transformation,” she said. “It has to be what makes the system most resilient to the climate crisis.”