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Environmentalists urge NFTA to buy Zero Emission Buses

Chris Caya/WBFO News

The future of public transportation could be on its way to Buffalo. The Sierra Club Niagara Group is asking the NFTA to purchase 10 Zero Emission Buses. There are a couple hundred buses in service across the country today. Most are in California, but about twice that is currently on order to be made.

EB (Electric Bus) START Consulting co-founder Judah Aber said the buses are a sound investment for the future.

“The initial cost of the bus is higher for the electric bus, but the total cost of ownership is cheaper,” said Aber. “That’s because the maintenance costs are cheaper and the fuel costs are cheaper. Over the life of the bus, you’re saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. At the end of the day it is cheaper for the taxpayer.”

A healthy competition to produce the buses is already on display.

“The two major sellers are Proterra and BYD,” said Aber. “BYD is a Chinese company, but they have a manufacturing plant in California. Proterra has manufacturing plants in South Carolina and in California. The competition is called the “Race to Zero Emissions (R2ZE)” and it’s a nationwide thing the United States and China have put together as a friendly competition to see who is better at rolling out some of this technology, so it’s pretty exciting.”

It is estimated that $150,000 in health care costs are saved over the life of the ZEB. Rick Steinberg is an energy committee member of the Sierra Club Niagara Group who believes cutting down air pollution should be a focus for the city.

“The World Health Organization put out a report last month that 7 million people die worldwide 10 years prematurely because of air pollution," said Steinberg. “Forty percent of that is transportation. A lot of our children in the Buffalo Public Schools and beyond have asthma. Having these buses in town will help them. It will prevent emergency room visits. It will prevent parents from taking off. It will mean workers can get to their jobs.”

There is also less maintenance involved over the life of the ZEB, making it cheaper overall when compared to their diesel counterparts.

Credit Chris Caya/WBFO News
A small rally was held on Elmwood Avenue in support of the clean vehicles.

“They don’t have the air filters, the gas filters, the oil filters, the transmission filters,” said Steinberg. “They’re a lot cleaner to work with. The have a third less moving parts, so the maintenance is less. The body is a carbon composite. The bodies of the diesels are steel. They’re much heavier and cumbersome.”

NFTA Executive Director Kim Minkel told WBFO, as the environment is "very important" to the transportation authority, it continues to look for buses that produce lower or zero emissions.

"As part of that campaign several years ago we went with hydro-electric buses," said Minkel. "We also went with CMG, compressed natural gas, that have lower [nitrogen oxides] emissions, lower particulate emissions than traditional diesel. And then there's been a lot of advancement made with clean diesel buses. Much lower particulate emissions as opposed to traditional diesel buses."

Minkel said the NFTA looked at the electric ZEB that was in town and it also is looking at hydrogen fuel cell buses. The purchase of 10 electric buses, as the Sierra Club has requested, would be "a significant expense."

"Certainly it's a goal for us to get as green and clean as possible and we continue to evaluate more environmentally friendly alternatives as we look at transportation," she said. "Certainly as we look at fleet replacement, looking for cleaner and greener alternatives is a very large consideration."

Minkel estimates about three-quarters of the NFTA's fleet have already transitioned to newer, cleaner versions.

Steinberg said once the community has a ZEB bus, they get what some call luxury riders.

“It’s somebody who doesn’t ordinarily ride the bus - when Jane tells Mary it’s really quiet, it’s really nice to ride in," Steinberg said. "One of the NFTA workers today, an engineer said, ‘Yeah it’s like being in a library.’ So they get a different ridership or they add riders.”

Kat Fisher with the Sierra Club’s Electric Vehicle Campaign of New York, said manufacturers are taking necessary steps to support larger numbers of the buses on the road.

“The bus companies are doing more than ever to make sure that the batteries can be leased if there is a worry about that, as well as making sure the charging works with other bus companies,” said Fisher. “There’s lots of concessions and people are really working hard to make sure it can happen.”

Minkel said it is too early to tell whether the electric buses would be less expensive to operate and maintain, as the NFTA has not yet had experience with them.

"Certainly in those hydroelectric buses, that battery component is a new expense," she said. "We did see the life of the batteries exceed what we hoped that they would, but battery replacement is a significant cost. As it relates to our CMG buses, we've only had them for a short period of time, so it's too soon to really offer an opinion on that."

Electric buses are currently five times cleaner than a traditional diesel bus. Fisher sees other cities making the change and does not want Buffalo to miss out on the opportunity.

“It just gets cleaner and cleaner as you get toward electric,” said Fisher. “There’s no tailpipe on an electric bus. There’s no emissions. Our electricity is 25 percent renewable in New York State. We really are trying to let people know that this is the cleanest option we have right now.”

Aber said reliance on oil could be looked at as a detriment to the economy.

“From an energy independence perspective, right now about 40 percent of our oil is imported,” said Aber. “That’s even after the almost doubling of oil production in the past five years in the United States. Getting off of oil is important from an energy independence perspective.”

Aber hoped to see change implemented soon.

“At the end of the day when you do the analysis, you have improved health for the community and it’s at a lower cost for the taxpayers. Who can argue with that?" said Aber. "So it’s a very simple message at the end of the day.”

Minkel pointed out that Buffalo's Metro Rail system is electric, which is zero emissions, and a portion of it is fueled through hydropower. She also pointed out that taking public transportation has "a tremendous impact" on helping the environment and reducing emissions because it reduces the number of vehicles on the roads.

"We're concerned about the environment. We're concerned about Western New York. Anything we can do to help lower emissions, that's certainly the direction we want to go," Minkel said.

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.