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Minnesota should go all in on electric buses

Minnesota should go all in on electric buses
REUTERS/Nichola Groom
Metro Transit is interested in transitioning 5 percent to 10 percent of its fleet to electric buses.

The Greater Minneapolis-St. Paul region has the potential to become one of the world’s great urban centers – but to realize that potential we must lead in electrifying our entire transportation system, starting with electric buses.

We are all familiar with the sight, sound, and smell of diesel buses. Electric buses, on the other hand, are clean and quiet, with a smoother ride and no tailpipe pollution. Cities such as Indianapolis, Seattle, and Dallas are already on the road to electric bus systems, and have found them to be reliable, cost-effective, and attractive to riders.

Signs of progress

Even as discussions about how to fund our transportation system continue to stall, there are strong signs of progress in Minnesota. The City of Duluth has purchased six electric buses that will be fully in operation this year. Metro Transit is interested in transitioning 5 percent to 10 percent of its fleet to electric buses. And when the City of Minneapolis commissioned Siemens to study how to deeply reduce carbon emissions, it identified electrifying public transportation as an essential strategy.

An independent energy policy organization based in St. Paul, Fresh Energy looks for the most visionary, yet realistic, tools for transitioning Minnesota to a clean energy economy. At a recent public event, Fresh Energy brought together experts and decision leaders to explore how and why Minnesota should invest in electric buses.

Shawntera Hardy, now commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, spoke compellingly about the 85 million bus trips metro residents took last year, and the fact that diesel buses dominate. “Would you believe that your ZIP code impacts your life expectancy? So when you live along transit ways, when you live along highways, depending on where you live your life expectancy may be 5, 10, 20 years less. That’s important. That’s why we need to invest in clean technology.”

Like light rail — with more flexibility

Matt Horton, senior vice president at Proterra, currently the nation’s largest electric bus manufacturer, shared important insights from cities that have found that electric buses bring a transportation experience similar to light rail, with the added bonus of more flexibility for routes and cost savings. Horton also recognizes the social and environmental impacts.

Michael Langley
Michael Langley

“We’ve put our least efficient, most polluting vehicles in our dense, urban areas where we have the highest population and often where our most vulnerable citizens live,” he said. “A city’s decision to invest in more diesel buses is similar to deciding to build a coal-fired power plant in the middle of our community.”

Electric buses have other fans, including GREATER MSP, a nonprofit serving the Minneapolis St. Paul area by promoting job creation, providing regional marketing, and assisting in business recruitment and expansion. GREATER MSP believes investing in electric buses is a key way to help the Minneapolis-St. Paul region become a top global city. A modern electric transit system, with its high efficiency, low noise and zero emissions, is a way to distinguish our city among the great cities of the world.

Will Minnesota lead or lag?

Minnesota is getting better at making its electricity cleaner and cleaner, with more wind and solar, and other non-polluting resources. Oil extraction, on the other hand, is getting more polluting with lower quality oil coming from more risky and energy intensive processes.

Michael NobleMichael Noble

For health, economic, and livability reasons, Fresh Energy and GREATER MSP believe it’s inevitable that the transportation market will move to electric buses. It’s the way of the future. The question is: will Minnesota lead or lag behind other major metropolitan areas in going all in on electric bus fleets?

It’s time that Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton, Metro Transit, and our other transit agencies decide that we are going there — and roll up their sleeves to make this happen.

Michael Noble is the executive director of Fresh Energy. Michael Langley is the founding CEO of GREATER MSP, Minneapolis Saint Paul Regional Economic Development Partnership.

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