BRTA chief: Next days 'critical' in gauging virus impact on public transit (copy)

Electrification of Berkshire Regional Transit Authority vehicles has been held back by an aging power grid, says Robert Malnati, the BRTA’s administrator. Climate advocates, though, want to see greater effort on electrification.

BOSTON — While Massachusetts will require that only electric cars be sold in the state by 2035, the pace of electrification in Berkshire County’s public transit system remains slow.

An aging power grid, among other factors, could serve as a reality check on electrification efforts.

A feasibility study conducted by the Department of Transportation, which will be finalized in April, determined that public transit in the Berkshires cannot achieve significant electrification yet.

“Each one of those legs is about 23 miles, so, a round trip is 46 miles, and you do that multiple times during the day. There’s really not the amount of charging that can take place for these vehicles,” said Robert Malnati, administrator of the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority.

Some climate advocates are skeptical of these claims, suggesting that previous studies might not have investigated all the available options.

“I’m not convinced that it was the end of the story. ... There could be other ways of looking at this problem,” said Pat Konecky, a coordinator with 350 Massachusetts’ Berkshire node.

“My vehicle can get to 300 miles on a charge,” Konecky said. “I’m not fully up to date on what the buses are getting, but if it’s anywhere near that, the Berkshires is not that big. So, I have to believe it’s doable.”

The rapid decrease in emissions at the start of the coronavirus pandemic has led advocates to push for a reevaluation of public transportation options to keep down emissions. Most vehicle traffic since then has returned to 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels, with some areas of the state completely having returned to their previous level of activity.

Personal vehicles produce 40 percent of the state’s carbon output, far exceeding the rate of other sectors.

“So, there is more pollution coming out of our tailpipes than coming out of our factories,” said Chris Dempsey, director of the Transportation for Massachusetts coalition of advocates. “There is a direct connection between the amount of driving people do in Massachusetts and the amount of emissions and air pollution in the air we all breathe.”

Electrification and the standardization of public transportation are the means of combating the rise of emissions, Dempsey said, but doing so remains a challenge in rural areas such as the Berkshires.

Issue on radar ‘for years’

The Berkshire Environmental Action Team has been pushing the BRTA to move to fully electric buses “for years,” said Executive Director Jane Winn.

“Electrification has been on our radar for a number of years,” Malnati said, citing the presence of several hybrid-electric service vehicles in the BRTA fleet. But, greater electrification could overtax the aging power grid when all the buses are plugged in for the night, he said.

Transportation experts are inclined to agree that the power grid poses a barrier.

“The commonwealth doesn’t have the electrical infrastructure in place to support those power demands that an electrified commuter rail fleet and an electrified bus fleet would,” said Brian Kane, acting executive director of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Advisory Board.

Despite the challenges, advocates say the BRTA and other transport authorities aren’t moving fast enough, given the immediate dangers of carbon emissions.

The BRTA has several hybrid electric service vehicles but has not dedicated itself fully to electrification. It bought a 35-foot bus last year and uses ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel for larger vehicles.

“The easiest thing is to electrify first, rather than bringing on diesels and then trying to retrofit after the fact,” said Kane, supporting a gradual electrification.

The diesel buses present a danger to residents, Winn said, as the fumes expose them to a higher risk of asthma and cardiopulmonary issues.

“It’s frustrating to see them having to be dragged into this instead of being proactive and really trying to get this done quickly,” Winn said.

The current BRTA fleet might not undergo significant change for some time, Malnati said, as the vehicles can remain on the road for upward of a decade. During that time, he said, the BRTA will continue to assess ways to accommodate electrification.

“In the near future, next five years, next 10 years, this should be looked at again because it’s not just the vehicles — it’s the infrastructure. And you don’t want to spend a lot of money on infrastructure if you’re not ready to take the step of ordering vehicles,” Malnati said.

Lack of money challenging

Part of the challenge regional transit authorities face is a lack of money. The primary source of funding for transportation — the gas tax — has been raised only three times since 1991, meaning that it has not been able to keep up with inflation.

“The regional transit authorities and others that own and operate transportation systems in Massachusetts have been trying to do a lot with very little. It’s forced some tough choices about what projects get built and what projects don’t,” Dempsey said.

In 2018, Massachusetts was one of eight Northeast states to sign on to the Transportation and Climate Initiative, an agreement to push state and private transportation systems to 100 percent climate neutrality by 2030.

The state plans to implement the initiative in 2022, introducing a “cap-and-invest” system, which would auction emission allowances to fuel providers. The money from the auctions would funnel the money back into promoting electrification and other climate-friendly transportation improvements.

The initiative supplements the plan Gov. Charlie Baker released in December, seeking to bar new sales of nonelectric cars by 2035.

To some, efforts by the Baker administration to curb vehicle emissions haven’t been impressive.

“I would point to our governor being a lot more talk than he is action. If he were serious, he would have used more of the [Volkswagen settlement] funding on getting charging stations all along the major routes,” Winn said.

With many rural residents unable to access existing BRTA routes, ride sharing has been put forward by advocates to curb the county’s carbon output. Yet, the same geographic challenges that hinder public transportation also mean that Uber and Lyft generally do not operate in the county, since it is not profitable for them.

The BRTA, though, will receive $975,000 through a recent bill to pilot a “mobility-on-demand” program allowing riders to request rides via a digital app.

“The bottom line is that we’ve built a transportation system that is dependent on people driving pretty much everywhere,” said Ben Hellerstein, state director of Environment Massachusetts. “For most people, most of the time, driving is the only option. ... We need to be doing more to encourage public transportation, encourage walking and biking.”

Some Berkshire lawmakers have pushed for the Transportation and Climate Initiative to include support for personal electric vehicles, arguing that some Berkshire residents will continue to need personal vehicles, even if public transit improves.

Supporters of “west-east” passenger rail connecting Pittsfield and Boston through Springfield have said that project would reduce emissions, although it likely would need federal money to meet its price tag of $2.4 billion to $4.6 billion.

Other ideas, like free rides, which was brought up in the Legislature for the MBTA last year, might help low-income Berkshire residents find a more cost-efficient means of transport.

“You know, mass transit can be great. It’s much more challenging in the Berkshires,” Konecky said.

“I want to believe that [the BRTA is] working in good faith to make these changes. And I think that, over time, we just have to keep supporting them, and pushing them, and encouraging them to do the right things sooner rather than later. Because the crisis is not waiting.”