Are electric buses due to replace Metrobuses too soon or too late?
Talks last week over a report that found Transportation Director Alice Bravo’s mishandling of a bus order delayed replacing aging Metrobuses led to discord among Miami-Dade commissioners and staff about converting the fleet to electric.
Some held that electric is coming too soon. Others said it can’t come quick enough.
Miami-Dade has now received all 300 compressed natural gas (CNG) buses it bought for $174.8 million from manufacturer New Flyer, part of a $321.6 million master development agreement with fuel provider Trillium to build and operate fueling facilities at the county’s Central and Coral Way bus depots.
Commissioners amended that agreement Dec. 3 so Trillium could build a third fueling station at the county’s Northeast Depot for $18.5 million, plus $20 million for fuel, $7 million for operations and maintenance, a $1.8 million contingency allowance and peripheral expenditures.
Buses from a second order of 120 CNG buses from competing manufacturer Gillig began arriving in September.
A third order of 140 CNG buses awaits a recommendation from county staff after a prior deal went awry in committee.
With that order still pending, the county has already begun to shift its focus toward electric, evidenced in contract award to electric bus manufacturer Proterra that commissioners OK’d in October.
Thirty-three e-buses are on the way, with 52 more buyable through a $72 million contract that includes installation of charging systems at Miami-Dade’s three bus maintenance garages.
According to Mayor Carlos Giménez, more than half the Metrobus fleet by 2035 should be electric, and all of the buses serving the South Dade Transitway being upgraded for train-like rapid bus service between Kendall and Florida City will probably be electric as well.
“We need to buy CNG because our fleet is so old, but future purchases I want as much as possible to be electric if it fits our needs,” the mayor said. “I want to make sure that’s the direction I get from this board too.”
The Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization in August 2018 endorsed express bus service as the preferred upgrade for the transitway, one of six key commuting corridors targeted for transit upgrades in the countywide SMART Plan.
The $300 million project, which is two-thirds funded by equal local and state dollars, awaits a $100 million federal contribution. To date, it’s the only one of the six corridors to receive funds from outside the county.
Redeveloping the 20-mile transitway will require building a new fueling depot in the south, Deputy Mayor Jennifer Moon said, and the county has a deal with FPL to build the necessary infrastructure to support electric buses.
Commission Vice Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa remained dubious of how useful electric buses would be elsewhere in the county. They could be made obsolete by future technology, she said, similar to how flip phones replaced beepers but were then supplanted by smart phones.
“The reality is the price, the space, everything of the preparation for that era is going to be very hard to do,” she said. “We have new buses to serve the community well as we move into the future.”
To further illustrate her point, Ms. Sosa asked Ms. Bravo if the county now has the means to fuel electric buses.
Ms. Bravo began to explain that the Proterra contract, like the Trillium/New Flyer contract, provides that the requisite fueling facilities will come in time to fuel the buses as they arrive.
But Ms. Sosa interrupted, asking Ms. Bravo to answer only yes or no. Ms. Bravo conceded that no fueling provisions for electric buses here yet exist.
“So the answer is we don’t have any of the electric today,” Ms. Sosa said. “Maybe in the future we will.”
Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz agreed that technology changes rapidly, adding that electrically powered vehicles may face a tough problem in South Florida.
“What happens with flooding and electricity? It doesn’t work too good, and water can get into the wrong parts and so on,” he said. “Is it at 100%? Nothing is. As technology moves forward, it’ll get better.”
CNG is a “lovely” but “interim step,” Commissioner Eileen Higgins said. Electric power stations may take up more space and aren’t yet here, she said, but “guess what, guys: we’re going to eventually have to do it, and the sooner we do it the better.”
Whatever is done, it needs to happen quickly, said Dennis Moss, one of several commissioners on the county dais whose final term ends next year.
Bringing better service to the South Dade Transitway, Mr. Moss said, including infrastructure components that allow for converting the route for Metrorail once daily ridership hits 35,000, will probably be among his last – and most lasting – legislative legacies.
“I always talk about leaving footprints in the sand,” he said. “That’s one footprint I want to leave in the sand before I get out of here.”
The mayor said he felt a similar urgency.
“You and I have the same timeframe,” he said. “We have the same hourglass running.”