The last of NJ Transit’s older cruiser buses are soon to be riding into retirement after its board of directors unanimously approved a $63 million contract Wednesday to buy 118 new cruiser buses.
It’s the second-to-last major cruiser bus purchase before the agency has replaced all of its older buses, some that are up to 20 years old and unreliable, said Kevin Corbett, NJ Transit CEO.
But, transit advocates question why the agency is buying hundreds of diesel buses when Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law in January requiring it to move toward purchasing zero-emissions buses. Some environmentalists and advocates asked if the purchase meets the intent of the recent law, which requires 10% of new bus purchases by 2024 to be zero emission vehicles. That increases to 50% by 2026, and 100% of new bus purchases must be zero emissions by 2032.
“I find it incredible you can buy 118 buses and say you’re meeting the standard,” said Sally Jane Gellert, Lackawanna Commuter Coalition chairwoman, who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting.
Based on a 14-to-20 year life span for buses, she said, “we’ll have 500 diesel buses on the road through 2045, so it will be decades before environmental justice communities see relief.”
The state Sierra Club chapter called on NJ Transit to put the brakes on the bus order.
“They should cancel this order and instead buy electric buses,” said Jeff Tittel, NJ Sierra Club director. “These are dirty, polluting buses that could be on the road for another 25-30 years, especially polluting communities that have some of the worst air pollution in the country. All new buses that NJ Transit is buying should be electric.”
But finding electric, long-haul cruiser buses may be tough because they are either not available in the North American market, or their performance is unproven, Corbett said.
“We’re talking talk to manufacturers about that. It gets into battery storage and weight. We want to make sure we do it right,” Corbett said. “There’s been a number of manufacturers in various stages of development.”
The 118 diesel-powered cruiser buses meet Tier 4 emissions requirements, which are the federal government’s most stringent, Corbett said. The agency was faced with a decision of keeping older, less reliable buses that emit more pollutants on the road or to replace them, he said.
“The issues are in parallel — making bus transit attractive and efficient and reliable,” he said. “Part of it is bringing down the average age of the fleet and how do we electrify responsibly to meet the governor’s goal, which we support.”
In the short term, those may seem to be at odds, Corbett said.
“There is a lot we’re doing to make sure we ramp up to an electric bus that’s reliable and sustainable,” Corbett said. “There is nothing more negative and that will have an impact on the environment than not having reliable bus service and people go back to cars.”
Tittel countered that electric cruiser buses are available, and have been used by other agencies. Some manufacturers are just getting started in the North American electric motor coach market.
But Corbett cautioned about being the agency that beta tests a new type of bus, citing other transit agencies that had bad experiences with electric buses. IndyGo in Indianapolis canceled an order for electrics in February after electric buses failed to meet a promised 275-mile range between charges, the Indianapolis Star reported.
NJ Transit is <a href=”https://www.nj.com/news/2020/09/nj-transits-electric-bus-program-rolls-ahead-as-opponents-push-for-booting-of-natural-gas-plant.html” target=_blank>conducting a pilot deployment of eight electric transit buses in Camden to see how they perform</a>. That information will guide future electric bus purchases and how they are deployed.
“You might need to add some cruiser buses to that pilot,” Gellert said.
NJ Transit also is polling other transit agencies, including some from overseas, about their experiences with electric buses and charging infrastructure, Corbett said.
Environmentalists have been pressing the agency to buy more electric buses and <a href=”https://www.nj.com/news/2021/04/nj-transit-is-behind-other-transit-agencies-in-deploying-electric-buses-report-says.html” target=_blank>catch up to others, </a>such as New York’s MTA.
“We are working toward that initial deployment and a road map for deployment,” Corbett said. “We’ve laid out an aggressive plan to transition to zero emissions vehicles…it’s one of our top priorities.”
NJ Transit began replacing cruiser buses, typically used on longer haul commuter routes out of New York and Philadelphia, in 2015, when the agency purchased 772 buses. A s second purchase of 350 buses was made in Feb. 2016.
NJ Transit anticipates advertising for contracts for the purchase of the final group of 172 cruiser buses later this year. That will bring the cruiser bus fleet down to an average age of roughly 4 years, which means more reliability and fewer breakdowns. The average life of a cruiser bus is 14 years.
The new buses are 5 feet longer than the 40-foot-long buses they replace, meaning they have 16% more passenger capacity.
Officials called the buses among the safest the agency has acquired.
The new buses have three point seat belts, a feature introduced in the July 2015 order of 722 buses. They also have 360-degree camera monitoring, blind spot cameras and snow chains that automatically deploy.
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Larry Higgs may be reached at [email protected].