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Santa Monica’s Troubled Transit System Gets Grant for Electric Buses


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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

May 2, 2018 -- Dogged by failing ridership and rising costs, Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus (BBB) system finally had good news to report on Tuesday: It has been selection for a $3 million grant to buy the first batch new zero-emission electric buses.

The California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) announced the BBB will receive a $3,050,000 grant to purchase 10 battery electric buses.

Moving cautiously toward a total fleet of electric buses -- a new technology-use some transit systems are taking a wait and see stance on -- the City Council in late April voted to start a sub-fleet as part of a pilot project ("Santa Monica City Council Gives Nod to Pilot Project for Sub-Fleet of Electric City Buses," April 24, 2018).

Given the BBB’s mounting red ink, a key to the project was outside funding. Ed King, who heads the BBB, assured the council the money would be found.

"Receiving this grant is an important step in launching the Electric Blue pilot and getting us on the road to a 100 percent zero-emissions fleet as envisioned by the Santa Monica City Council,” King said in announcing the grant.

“Our continued commitment to sustainability will play a significant role in reducing not only the City’s carbon footprint but our entire service area in our continuing effort to expand mobility options for our community," he said.

Although initially costly, electric buses have been found to be less expensive over the long term, and provide an environmentally cleaner service, King Said.

The new electric buses will enable BBB to “complement existing service and continue providing critical first-last mile connectivity to Metro Rail stations throughout the Westside of Los Angeles,” he said.

The BBB’s goal is to be at 100 percent zero-emissions by 2030 ("Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus Could Go all Electric by 2030," July 7, 2016).

Its rocky state of existence right now is adding hurdles to meeting its target, though.

The BBB has suffered years of declining ridership, despite extensive funding infusions from the City, previous evolutions to improve business and some high-profile public relations campaigns.

BBB ridership plunged to about 13.8 million in the 2016-2017 year, a 27 percent decline from the 2014-2015 fiscal year and far from its original goal of 20 million riders by 2020 ("Ridership Plunges on Santa Monica City Buses as Expo Popularity Soars," January 17, 2018).

Meanwhile, spending jumped by 31 percent to reach $110.4 million for the 2018-2019 fiscal year, according to the City’s current $1.5-billion biennial budget ("Santa Monica’s Embattled Bus System Coming Under New Scrutiny," February 9, 2018).

It is also facing a deficit of nearly $11 million by the 2019-2020 fiscal year and the possibility that by 2021-2022 its will reserves will be exhausted.

Still, the 90-year-old bus system is considered a critical part of the City’s mission to convince a car-addled public to instead use its buses, the Expo train, walk, bike or take scooters when going about town.

It is hoping to evolve the BBB into a more agile system and might also start cutting services to lesser-used route so it can redeploy buses to busy routes.

The new state grant is funded through the Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program (TIRCP).

TIRCP funding is provided through Senate Bill 1 (SB 1) and from the proceeds of the Cap and Trade program.


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