WMATA set out a timeline to electrify its buses. A DC Council roundtable asks: why not sooner?

An electric bus by MJW15 licensed under Creative Commons.

In July, Metro’s Board of Directors approved plans to fully convert the WMATA bus fleet to electric buses over the next two decades, by 2045. Up to 12 electric buses could be rolled out in a pilot program in 2023, and the system plans to stop buying gas and diesel-powered buses by 2030.

But is WMATA's timeline too slow? A notice of a roundtable discussion hosted by DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson says that despite the agency’s long-term plans, “it is unclear why WMATA is not being more aggressive in its electrification efforts.”

Mendelson wrote a letter to WMATA’s Board of Directors in June raising concerns about the agency’s timeline. The letter references a “Sense of the Council” resolution introduced and signed by all DC councilmembers urging a faster rollout of electric buses.

Citing cost savings and environmental and public health benefits, the council resolution calls for WMATA to electrify half of its bus fleet by 2030, 75% by 2035, 90% by 2040, and 100% by 2045.

“Instead, we understand that the WMATA Board is considering a staff plan that would backload electrification — less than 20 percent of the fleet being electrified by 2030,” Mendelson wrote in the letter.

WMATA spokesperson Sherri Ly said in an email that the agency’s timeline “takes into consideration still developing zero-emission technology and allows for long-term investments in infrastructure necessary to support the 1,500-vehicle Metrobus fleet, including facilities, electric utility infrastructure and workforce training.”

Ly said Metro recently hired a Director of Zero-Emission Vehicles who will lead the pilot program, including procurement of the initial 12 buses.

“The testing and evaluation will help inform Metro’s future bus procurements for zero-emission buses as well as charging and facility needs,” Ly wrote.

The council's virtual roundtable, set for September 30 at 1 pm, will feature a series of invited “experts” who will talk about strategies WMATA could use to more quickly electrify its buses. A spokesperson from Mendelson’s office said in an email that those experts will include representatives from other states’ transportation agencies with “successful” electric vehicle programs, as well as electric bus manufacturers “that can speak to how we might speed up the electrification of the fleet.”

“The idea of the hearing is not to have WMATA testify, but rather have them listen and gather information,” the spokesperson said.

WMATA’s plan follows advocacy last year by environmental groups urging the agency to adopt all-electric buses by 2045.

One of those groups, the Sierra Club, wrote last year that Metro had only one electric bus, and that they are scheduled to purchase dozens of diesel-powered buses over the next few years. A Sierra Club report found that switching to electric buses could save WMATA millions of dollars in operating costs and reduce the region’s carbon footprint.

Other transit systems in the region have made more rapid progress on electric buses, including Alexandria’s DASH, Montgomery County’s RideOn, and the DC Circulator.

It’s worth noting that even a ride on a carbon-powered bus emits far less in greenhouse gases than that same trip would emit in a car. No matter what kind of bus you’re boarding, it’s still a win for your carbon footprint.