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Infrastructure money to almost double zero-emission buses on road

The Federal Transit Administration announced $1.6 billion in grants, much of which will be spent on 1,100 emission-free buses

An electric bus in Silver Spring. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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The infrastructure law is set to almost double the number of zero-emission buses on U.S. roads with a single year’s funding, the Federal Transit Administration announced Tuesday.

The agency said it has awarded $1.6 billion through a pair of programs to transit operators across the country. The money will be used to purchase about 1,800 buses — including 1,100 that aren’t dependent on fossil fuels — and to construct maintenance and charging facilities while training workers.

The funding is one of the most direct ways the $1 trillion infrastructure package promises to cut carbon emissions from transportation, the nation’s biggest source of greenhouse gases. Federal officials will have another four rounds of funds to distribute in the coming years after Tuesday’s initial awards. The money is expected to help transit agencies accelerate plans to transition from diesel buses to battery- or hydrogen-powered buses.

Nuria Fernandez, the head of the FTA, said the money is a sorely needed infusion for transit agencies on tight budgets, allowing them to upgrade services while switching to sustainable fuels.

“We know the bus is an equalizer,” she said in a Monday briefing. “It allows everyone in our country to advance their lives and go wherever they need to go. With this funding, more of them than ever will have that opportunity.”

The money will be spread across 150 projects in 48 states, officials said. The infrastructure law provided officials with six times the funding for a federal low- and no-emissions bus fund over five years than the previous transportation funding law. The FTA received more than 500 applications valued at $7.7 billion — an indication of how eager transit agencies are to modernize their fleets and facilities.

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the nation’s largest transit agency, received $116 million to help pay for up to 230 electric buses, which would be 4 percent of its fleet. L.A. Metro was awarded $104 million to replace 160 natural-gas-powered buses with electric models.

Smaller agencies also will benefit. Fernandez said a $115,000 award will go to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe in Nevada. The money will cover a single bus, but Fernandez said tribal leaders told federal officials the money will mean more reliable service.

“Buying that bus will mean fewer times they have to cancel routes on the 742 square miles of the reservation, which means that more people will be able to ride more often to places and get to opportunities,” she said.

The District Department of Transportation will receive $9.6 million for 17 vehicles to replace diesel Circulator buses and expand its fleet. Montgomery County won a $15 million award for 13 hydrogen fuel cell buses. The county is also pursuing electric buses charged on a microgrid. Prince George’s County was awarded $25 million to purchase up to 20 battery-electric buses and upgrade charging infrastructure, which will also include a microgrid.

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Since electric buses have different maintenance requirements, 5 percent of the funding was set aside for worker training. Fernandez said 74 proposals that were awarded funding include a training component.

Despite the new federal funding, the transition of all of the nation’s 60,000 buses to clean fuel sources will probably take decades. For example, the Washington area’s Metrobus system, which did not receive new federal infrastructure money, plans to complete the shift by 2045.

Not all the money will go to zero-emission buses. Republicans inserted a provision into the infrastructure law to ensure that some funds would be available for buses powered by fuels such as natural gas. Fernandez said there was less interest in that part of the program and it will have money left over.

While some early models of battery-powered buses had limited range or took a long time to recharge, federal officials said conversations with manufacturers gave confidence the industry is ready to meet the demand spurred by the new funding. Major diesel bus manufacturers and new firms have been stepping up efforts to produce electric models in the United States.

Mitch Landrieu, President Biden’s infrastructure adviser, said the transition to electric transit will be completed by provisions in the new Inflation Reduction Act, which aims to spur battery manufacturing and the adoption of clean heavy-duty vehicles.

These grants are going to be used in every corner of this country and they’re going to drive sweeping change, cleaner air and good-paying jobs,” Landrieu said.