SMTD Board of Trustees approves district’s zero-emission transition plan

May 27, 2022
The transit district aims to be 100 percent low emission in 10 years and have a fleet that is more than 50 percent zero emission in 25 years.

Sangamon Mass Transit District’s (SMTD) Board approved the district’s first Zero Emissions Fleet Transition Plan, which the district explains is required by the Federal Transit Administration to apply for federal funds supporting the replacement of buses. SMTD intends to apply for the next round of funding availability to replace aging diesel buses.

SMTD currently runs 34 diesel-fueled buses and 22 compressed natural gas (CNG) buses. The approved transition plan is stepped in its adoption of zero-emission vehicles with diesel buses first replaced by hybrid vehicles before introducing hydrogen fuel cell buses.

“Since adding compressed natural gas (CNG) buses to our fleet in the mid-90s, SMTD has been a leader in Illinois in running low-emissions buses,” said SMTD Managing Director Steve Schoeffel. “With 40 percent of our fleet CNG, we’re moving to change out our diesel fleet with diesel-electric hybrids, making our fleet fully low-emissions in the next 10 years.”

In 25 years, SMTD aims to have a fleet that is more than 50 percent zero emissions. The district notes it plans to utilize at least two different fuel types for redundancy or in the event an emergency or disaster eliminates one fuel source. SMTD explains unless a good alternative for CNG emerges, a portion of the fleet will remain fueled by CNG well into the future.

“We’re still planning studies to determine our next alternative fuel, but early research shows hydrogen fuel cell buses (HFCB) may be a better fit for our fleet, our operations and our local climate,” Schoeffel said. “Any alternative fuel vehicle we decide to go with will be more expensive than diesel or CNG buses, and they will require fueling infrastructure. Right now, we’re leaning toward HFCBs, and we should be able to come to a more concrete decision in the next few years.”

SMTD points to studies and first-hand experience from peer agencies that indicate HFCBs can serve as a one-for-one swap with diesel vehicles. The district notes the possibility of eventually running HFC fueling stations exclusively with solar power is also an attractive option under consideration, ultimately reducing SMTD’s reliance on the local power grid.

SMTD believes while the up-front cost of the buses and infrastructure will be higher than maintaining the status quo, the cost to operate the vehicles and the reduced impact on the environment in local neighborhoods is a benefit.

“We operate in 18 census tracts designated as ‘disadvantaged’ by the Council on Environmental Quality’s Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool,” added Schoeffel. “Whether because of issues with sustainable housing, workforce development, health burdens, clean energy availability or legacy pollution, these disadvantaged communities will immediately benefit from cleaner-running buses on their streets.”

Cost estimates for HFCBs and BEBs exceed a million per bus, nearly double the current cost of a diesel vehicle, which is why SMTD is moving in a measured, deliberate manner. Much of the funding for the fleet transition is expected to come from federal grant funds.

“We anticipate growing service needs and higher operational costs in the future, so we want to avoid saddling our successors with an unsustainable fleet replacement plan,” he said. These decisions are quarter-century or longer decisions, and we will be as efficient as we possibly can be with the tax dollars we are responsible for.”

The SMTD Board of Trustees approved Zero Emissions Fleet Transition Plan can be viewed on SMTD's website

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