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Santa Monica City Council Gives Nod to Pilot Project for Sub-Fleet of Electric City Buses


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By Niki Cervantes
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April 24, 2018 -- Amid sinking ridership and rising red ink, Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus system was given to go-ahead Tuesday for a pilot project to start a sub-fleet of electric City buses.

The City Council voted to allow the troubled municipal bus system to begin purchasing battery electric buses -- most likely, about 10 of them --

The pilot project would “lay the groundwork for a transition to a 100 percent zero-emissions fleet,” said Transit Director Edward King in a council report on the evolution of the BBB’s buses.

The City, which is known for its extensive “green” policies and practices, pledged in 2016 to transform the BBB’s fleet (already powered by renewable natural gas) to zero carbon emissions by 2030 ("Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus Could Go all Electric by 2030," July 7, 2016).

Since then, the 90-year-old system’s woes have forced the City to begin re-examining the BBB’s mission, as well as its routes and way of doing business ("Santa Monica’s Embattled Bus System Coming Under New Scrutiny," February 9, 2018).

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It has also prompted skittishness about the system’s future.

The BBB is in “such flux,” said Council Member Kevin McKeown, that making “commitments is hard right now. It’s hard for me to say that.”

BBB operates a fleet of 200 buses, which includes nineteen 30-to-35-foot buses, 153 40-foot buses, and 28 60-foot buses. All are powered by natural gas engines fueled with renewable natural gas. More than 60 percent operate on compressed natural gas.

About 38 percent of BBB’s buses operate on liquefied natural gas, all of which are to be removed from the fleet by 2019.

On Tuesday, the council decided to try converting to electric buses in smaller steps by initiating it with a pilot project.

King said BBB would immediately begin to seek grant funding to help cover the costs associated with transitioning to an all-electric system.

Total per-mile operational cost for BBB’s existing transit buses is estimated to be $2.789/mi (compared to $2.829/mi for near-zero NOx emission natural gas transit buses) and $4.054/mi for battery electric transit buses if purchased in 2017, according to a recent analysis conducted for BBB by the consulting firm of Gladstein, Neandross & /Ramboll.

“While significant operating cost reductions are not expected for BBB’s existing buses or for NZE natural gas buses over the next 20 years, it is widely projected that operating costs for battery electric buses will fall over time,” the analysis said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Council Member Terry O’Day said the City should be moving more urgently toward an electric fleet.

“You can’t put a price on doing the right thing here,” he said. “Our role is to lead. It may be a little painful to buy some buses, but we need to do it, folks.”

City staff is analyzing the “economic and environmental benefits” for BBB’s fleet of transitioning the existing fleet it near-zero NOx emission natural gas engines fueled by renewable natural gas, and using battery electric buses -- a newer technology which other transit agencies are beginning to try out.


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