NJ Transit board members unanimously approved spending $685.95 million to buy 750 new buses that the agency said will be the last diesel-powered buses it plans to buy, if a pilot program to deploy battery powered “electric” buses works out.
But they might not be the last diesels to join NJ Transit’s bus fleet, and this purchase could total 1,300 diesel buses if options to buy more buses are exercised, according to documents. The initial purchase is larger than the initial 550 buses that the agency sought bids for in October 2022 to replace aging buses.
That initial diesel purchase was criticized by environmentalists last year, who contend the buses will worsen the air in urban areas where residents have that statistically suffered from the worst respiratory ailments caused by air pollution and particulate from diesel-powered vehicles.
The contract approved Wednesday added 200, 60-foot-long articulated buses, that bend in the middle to negotiate corners and carry 100 passengers, compared to the 60 passengers that 40-foot buses carry, NJ Transit CEO Kevin Corbett said.
“The Important thing from an environmental viewpoint is riding an articulated bus with fuel-efficient clean engines, moving 100 people, will have the lowest possible carbon footprint in transportation than driving an automobile,” he said. “This is not the end goal where we want to be, but it is a big improvement over the older buses.”
The added buses are also to accommodate growth in bus ridership on routes operated by private bus companies in Jersey City and Essex County, some routes having been discontinued by those companies, and an overall bounce back in bus ridership, he said. Corbett on Wednesday reported that bus ridership ranges between 90% and 95% of pre-COVID levels.
“You’ll see advantage of having the articulated buses where getting the advantage of getting 100 people on board instead of 60, that’s a real game changer,” he said.
A request for proposals from bus manufacturers was issued by NJ Transit in October 2022 to replace the oldest buses in the massive fleet of transit and suburban style buses built by North American Bus Industries over the past decade. The buses will adhere to the Tier 4 federal emissions standards, the strictest EPA emissions requirements for diesels.
Corbett said he shares the concerns of environmentalists and said NJ Transit still intends to meet Gov. Phil Murphy’s mandate that all bus purchases must be zero emission vehicles by 2032, and that NJ Transits bus fleet has to transition to 100% zero emission vehicles by 2040.
The new buses would replace the oldest of the NABI Transit/Suburban buses purchased in 2008 that are at the end of their service lives, he said.
“Now, we want to make sure the average age of the fleet is what we need until acquire the EV buses,” Corbett said of the diesel purchase. “Hopefully these are the last, but the options are there to protect us on the back side in case the (power) grid isn’t able to meet (demands) or there are external factors beyond our controls.”
The massive bus order and options to order more buses is also intended to “lock in” manufacturing space on assembly lines so NJ Transit’s buses aren’t backlogged, he said. The agency also wants to do business with a bus manufacturer that complies with federal Buy American standards in order to qualify for federal funding, he said.
“Right now, there is only one bus manufacturer that meets the buy American provision,” Corbett said. “So the real focus of this one is to be able to grab production lines. There is shortage of bus bus manufacturers in the U.S.”
According to the agencies procurement calendar, New Flyer was the sole company to bid.
In August, electric bus manufacturer Proterra filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, due to supply chain problems and the long lead time to build the complicated buses, which affected profitability.
Despite the urging of environmentalists for a faster roll out of Zero Emission buses, NJ Transit has taken a careful approach to to its pilot program, testing eight battery electric buses in Camden, with plans to expand to the 25 route in Newark.
The purchase and the phrase “clean diesel” are being challenged by environmental justice advocates, who said NJ Transit should deploy to urban areas the 100 electric buses to be purchased as part of its strategic plan. That’s where residents have been disproportionally burdened by air pollution that causes respiratory diseases, they have previously told NJ Advance Media.
“I share that concern, that’s why we’re aggressively moving ahead, but the worst thing is what we’ve seen in other systems in Indianapolis and Albuquerque,” Corbett said. “They went all in on EV buses. They were not reliable enough. It became counter productive and back fired.”
Other work progresses on preparing for the next battery electric bus pilot program on the 25 route in Newark.
Last month, the agency’s board approved a $2.72 million contract with AECOM to do additional work for engineering design and construction documents to reconstruct Bay 3 of the Hilton Garage in Maplewood with the infrastructure necessary to charge and maintain battery electric buses.
Meanwhile NJ Transit officials said they can’t continue to depend on older buses while waiting for charging infrastructure for electric buses to be built.
A strategic plan calls for rebuilding 200 newer NABI buses and an initial purchase of 100 zero emission buses. A contract with New Flyer, which built the eight electrics in the pilot program, includes an option to buy 75 more.
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Larry Higgs may be reached at [email protected].
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