Letter to the Editor

MBTA should prioritize electric transit in Chelsea and other environmental justice communities

Dear Editor,

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) has an aging bus fleet. Over 300 MBTA buses are approaching their useful life of 12 years and several will need to be retired soon. The time is right for MBTA to jump-start investments in a zero-emission electric bus fleet instead of continuing to procure polluting fossil fuel powered buses. However, at a time when transit agencies across the country are accelerating investments in fleet electrification, MBTA has added   369 CNG and diesel hybrid buses to their fleet in the last couple of years and an additional 194 diesel hybrid buses are expected to be deployed soon.

As part of a plan to modernize and expand its bus fleet, MBTA together with the Department of Transportation (DOT) is carrying out a feasibility study to determine routes best suited for integration of electric buses and look into operational considerations. It is crucial that the roadmap for moving to a zero-emission bus fleet prioritize the roll out of electric buses in environmental justice communities like Chelsea that bear the greatest pollution burden.

The Chelsea Creek holds 100 percent of the jet fuel used at Logan International Airport and 70-80 percent of the region’s home heating fuel. The city of Chelsea is also home to the largest privately owned produce distribution center in the country which brings thousands of trucks daily, and the largest road salt storage in the region holding over 400,000 tons of salt for over 350 communities in the Northeast. Heavy truck traffic coupled with other vehicular transport and industrial activities has resulted in Chelsea having some of the highest rates of strokes, asthma and heart disease in the Commonwealth. The electrification of our transportation fleets isn’t negotiable, its critical.

Diesel exhaust contains more than 40 toxic air contaminants that in some cases can cause or worsen diseases such as asthma and cancer. Electrifying our public transit fleets will reduce air pollution, lower emissions and improve public health. With fewer moving parts, battery electric buses are both cheaper and easier to maintain. Rapidly falling battery prices and expanded driving ranges of up to 300 miles have made electric buses a viable alternative to diesel and other fossil fuel buses.

Chelsea, an environmental justice community, is one of the fourteen municipalities in the Boston metro area that account for 95 percent of MBTA’s bus and rapid transit ridership. In only 1.8 square miles, Chelsea has over 45,000 residents, making it the smallest and second most densely populated city in Massachusetts. The residents of Chelsea are some of the most vulnerable, with 24 percent living below the poverty level compared to a 10 percent state-average. Over 70 percent of Chelsea residents identify as a racial or ethnic minority, a vast majority of which are immigrants. Introducing electric buses on MBTA routes in Chelsea and other low-income neighborhoods most dependent on the T and hardest hit by pollution will help reduce health threats posed by fossil fuel transportation technologies.

While upfront costs of electric buses are higher, when coupled with external funding, the total costs of owning and operating a battery electric bus can be 17 percent-23 percent lower than a comparable diesel bus. In addition to lower fueling costs, electric buses can be four times more fuel efficient than a fossil fuel powered bus.

A recent report found that based on replacement criteria including vehicle mileage and age, over 450 transit buses in Massachusetts, representing cost savings of up to $24 million, currently present the most cost-effective opportunities for electrification. It is critical that both near and long-term investments in fleet replacement and expansion at MBTA be electric and take into account impact on climate, emission levels and public health. Alternative procurement models, including manufacturer electric bus rental programs and battery leasing options should be considered for near term bus replacements to advance the integration of electric buses into the fleet.

The $75 million in funds available through the Volkswagen settlement provides MBTA with an opportunity to offset the upfront costs of fully electric buses and accelerate investment in clean transportation, especially in underserved communities that rely on public transportation and are most affected by the health impacts of air pollution. An investment in communities like Chelsea is an investment in public health and in reversing years of environmental racism.

Veena Dharmaraj, Zero Emission Bus Organizer, Massachusetts Sierra Club and Maria Belen Power, Associate Executive Director, GreenRoots, Chelsea.

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