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Calif. board adopts rule to transition public bus fleet to zero-emission engines

The California Air Resources Board passed a rule requiring public transit agencies in the state to transition their public bus fleets to run solely on electricity or fuel cells by 2040.

"We're making sure that the buses on the road are the cleanest available and setting the stage for" additional clean transportation innovations and adoption, board Chair Mary Nichols said at the Dec. 14 meeting during which the board adopted the Innovative Clean Transit regulation.

The zero-emissions bus fleet rule applies to the state's 200 public transit agencies that together operate about 12,000 buses. As of May, there were 132 zero-emissions buses operating in California with plans to add another 655 to the fleet.

The Innovative Clean Transit regulation is part of a statewide effort to reduce emissions from the transportation sector, which accounts for 40% of emissions in the state and up to 90% of smog-forming pollutants, the board said in a news release. The board estimates that once fully implemented, the rule will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 19 million metric tons from 2020 to 2050 — the equivalent of taking 4 million cars off the road.

Air board member Daniel Sperling noted at the meeting that California's public bus system represents only a small part of total state transportation emissions.

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Sperling voted in favor of the regulation but raised concerns that the air board is using local transit agencies to push its broader clean transportation agenda even though the agencies are struggling with declining ridership and insufficient state funding.

"The greatest need with respect to transit is more and better transit just at a time that it's getting worse and deteriorating," Sperling said. "I do worry a lot about distracting management and these operators from what should be their first priority." That said, "signaling and messaging really is important, and I think that is important here ... that we really are committed to electric transportation."

To address concerns that the rule could force transit agencies to drive up costs for riders, the air board is giving smaller agencies until 2023 — everyone else has until 2020 — to submit their roll-out plans for complying with the rule. The board's staff will also report annually on the state of implementation, expected costs, and the availability of technology and infrastructure to help the air board determine whether the rules need to be modified. In addition, an agency may request an exemption from or an extension to the rule on a case-by-case basis if implementing the rule would be too difficult and costly.

The rule also requires agencies starting in 2020 to use renewable fuels for diesel and compressed natural gas buses when fuel contracts are renewed to support existing renewable fuel policies, with some exceptions.

While electric and fuel cell buses come with higher upfront costs, the air board estimates the regulation could ultimately save agencies $1.5 billion in maintenance, fuel and other costs by 2050 after the full buildout of infrastructure, the news release said.