Charlotte council votes to slow purchases of electric buses; what about climate goals?
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The Charlotte Area Transit System is tapping the brakes on plans to convert to 100% electric buses by 2030. And the slowdown is raising concerns among council members and environmentalists that Charlotte might not be able to meet the city's climate goals.
The Charlotte City Council on Monday approved CATS' plan to buy a mix of diesel-electric hybrid buses and electric buses next year — and possibly in future years. Mayor Vi Lyles cast the deciding vote when the 10 members present at the meeting deadlocked 5-5 on the plan.
The vote reverses previous plans to convert CATS' entire fleet to electric buses as older buses are retired. It also threatens the city's ability to meet its goal of switching its vehicles to a 100% electric fleet by 2030. CATS interim CEO Brent Cagle told City Council members the city lacks the charging stations and other infrastructure to continue a full rollout of electric buses.
In an interview Wednesday, Cagle said CATS is halfway through an 18-vehicle electric bus pilot and still hasn't figured out exactly what it needs to expand the electric bus fleet. CATS is waiting for a report by transportation consultant STV that will help.
"We have STV, who is looking at all of the other infrastructure components. And that's more than just simple chargers, right? It's maintenance facilities, it's charging facilities, it's in-route charging facilities. It's all of the things that CATS needs to support a fully electric fleet," said Cagle. He’s been on the job for just two and a half months, since replacing former CEO John Lewis.
Cagle said that while CATS is striving to meet the 2030 electric vehicle goal (which is part of the city's Strategic Energy Action Plan, or SEAP) it simply isn't ready to move full steam ahead with electric buses. And in order to serve riders today, CATS has to replace some of its older buses now — rather than wait for the electric transition.
"I'm faced with a terrible dilemma. Right now, to make service, I have to start replacing buses," Cagle told WFAE.
About 100 of CATS buses are older than the typical useful life of 12 years old. That’s about a third of CATS' 316-bus fleet. Some CATS buses are as old as 20 years, he said.
Cagle told the City Council Monday that the plan now is to buy up to 15 more battery electric buses in the next year, but also to buy 15 diesel-electric hybrid buses. Orders in future years could also be split between electric and hybrid diesel vehicles, he said, until CATS has the infrastructure it needs for a larger electric fleet.
About two-thirds of CATS’ buses are traditional diesel, 18 are electric vehicles and 70 are hybrids.
Adding 15 more electric buses would bring CATS’ fleet to 33 electrics — a bit more than 10% of the system’s total number of buses.
The bus system has 10 charging units with two ports each, Cagle said.
"So we can charge 20 vehicles at any given time. Today, it usually takes roughly six hours a day to charge a vehicle. So while … we may be able to support more than 33, we'll be getting towards the top of our capacity," he said.
Monday's council vote authorizes CATS to buy the hybrids as part of a cooperative purchasing agreement with other governments. The hybrids and electrics would replace older, all-diesel buses that need to be retired, so the move would mean a cleaner fleet, Cagle said.
Council member Dimple Ajmera said she is concerned that the policy change will affect public health and the city's ability to achieve its SEAP climate goals. She made a motion to defer a vote on the change, but it did not pass.
Ajmera and council member LaWana Mayfield both asked if adding hybrids (which still burn diesel fuel) would negatively affect the city’s plans to move its central bus station underground. Cagle said plans call for air-handling units that would remove toxic emissions.
Shannon Binns, the executive director of Sustain Charlotte, said Wednesday he's "deeply concerned" about the vote.
"This decision will make it impossible to reach the city’s adopted goal of a zero-carbon fleet by 2030. Moreover, with the recent decision by council to rebuild our main bus terminal in uptown underground, we worry about the health of bus riders and operators who will be breathing diesel fumes when these buses enter the enclosed terminal," he said.
He called on the council to rescind the decision and instead study what's needed to complete the transition to a fully electric bus fleet by 2030.
City Manager Marcus Jones said the city needs to buy buses. He said the city can't risk "issues that relate to the availability or reliability of the buses." In breaking the tie vote on Monday, Mayor Vi Lyles said she's also concerned about reliability.
Said Binns: "We agree that reliability of our bus fleet is vital. However, we need not choose reliability at the expense of public health and the urgent need for climate action."
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