Charlottesville, Virginia, shows how small cities can take a lead on zero-emissions public transit

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By gradually nudging aside its diesel buses, Charlottesville’s transit agency is punching above its weight.

The city of 45,000 at the edge of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains is matching the likes of larger counterparts in New York, Chicago and San Diego with a carbon-curbing proposal to convert to a zero-emission public transit fleet by 2040. By then, its routes will be served by electric buses.

Granted, some environmental advocacy organizations urged a speedier transition and are disappointed the city won’t retire its last diesel bus until 2039.

However, groups aligned with the Community Climate Collaborative (C3) — which emphasizes social justice in its work to reduce emissions — are relieved the city was willing to address route and ridership issues in addition to a commitment to wean itself off diesel and avoid compressed natural gas as a power source altogether.

“I think this is a victory,” said Caetano de Campos Lopes, C3’s director of climate policy. “We are very pleased that the city’s approach was so thorough and holistic.”

As it stands now, Charlottesville Area Transit (CAT) plans to double the size of its fleet from 38 to 76 by 2034. That peak fleet will be a blend of diesel and electric buses.

CAT is on track to roll out a pair of  pilot programs to add at least two battery electric buses and then at least two hydrogen-electric fuel cell models by 2029. The transit agency will stop ordering diesel buses in 2027, meaning the last ones will come into service by 2028 or 2029. 

While CAT is owned and operated by the city, the University of Virginia and Albemarle County contribute a small amount of its non-capital budget.

De Campos Lopes was reassured in late February when the Charlottesville City Council voiced unanimous support for advancing zero-emission fuel choices, because compressed natural gas was still under consideration the previous year. At its June 17 meeting, the council is scheduled to take a final vote on CAT’s Transit Strategic Plan.

C3 had collaborated with several dozen private companies and environmental, social justice and faith groups to pressure the council to adopt a measure in favor of zero-emission buses, particularly battery electric. It submitted a petition with 640-plus signatures last autumn.

Ben Chambers started his position as the city’s transportation planning manager in November 2022, when the community was in the thick of a back-and-forth exercise about its fleet makeup. The University of Virginia graduate is no stranger to the region or its routes, as he drove a University Transit Service bus while earning a religious studies undergraduate degree in 2006.

Over the last several years, he said, his most difficult task had been explaining to the public that CAT can’t turn on a dime to purchase zero-emission buses and upgrade their accompanying charging and fueling infrastructure.

He praised the council for conducting its deliberations openly so the public could better understand the process.

“For a long time, the constant refrain in the community has been ‘Get cleaner buses,’” Chambers said. “We’ve come to a solution that may not please everybody, but at least people understand how it’s going to work. We’re in a much better place now.”

Don’t let money overshadow emissions

C3, which released a transit equity and climate report in 2021, prodded the city to think beyond financial considerations when it found out that same year that CAT was on the verge of studying how to fuel its future buses.

The nonprofit and its allies feared the city would lean toward a known entity, compressed natural gas, and shy away from less time-tested technologies such as battery electric and hydrogen fuel cells.

That choice, de Campos Lopes said, wouldn’t align with the city’s ambitious target set in 2019 to curb greenhouse gas emissions 45% by 2030 and 100% by 2050. The transportation sector is a leading source, with an estimated 30% of total emissions.

Indeed, a recent analysis for CAT by the Northern Virginia-based Kimley-Horn engineering firm revealed that running CNG buses would amount to only a slight drop in emissions when compared to diesel.

In contrast, that same Kimley-Horn report stated that switching to battery electric buses or fuel cell buses powered with green hydrogen would reduce greenhouse gas emissions 99.4% and 99%, respectively, compared to the baseline diesel fleet.

Both technologies come close to achieving carbon neutrality, assuming the Virginia Clean Economy Act is heeded. Dominion Energy is supposed to achieve a carbon-free electric grid by 2045, with Appalachian Power following suit by 2050.

Both types of buses use batteries to power their electric motors. Fuel cell models use hydrogen to charge a battery, while the other uses electricity from the grid.

Initially, CAT had eyed compressed natural gas as one option because it’s cleaner than diesel and the gas buses didn’t cost that much more, Chambers said. Plus, both Richmond and Williamsburg had demonstrated success with gas buses, which qualified for funding under the federal government’s low- and no-emissions grant program.

“That CNG option caused a lot of mistrust,” he continued. “People thought CAT was trying to get around their request for clean energy buses. We dropped CNG mostly because of the feedback we got from the environmental community.”

In addition, some green groups said the transit agency was acting in bad faith by keeping diesel as part of its fuel mix. 

The timing for looking beyond all fossil fuels was right, Chambers said, when usage data about electric buses was becoming available from other transit agencies and funding opportunities became abundant.

“We could finally have that conversation about electric buses, but we weren’t just responding to what the mob wants us to do,” he said. “We want to balance the hue and cry for alternative fuel with the need for reliable bus service.”

The transit agency is in the midst of devising a zero emission transition plan to submit to the Federal Transit Administration this fall, Chambers said. The document includes details such as a turnover timeline and specifics about bus storage and storage infrastructure.

On the pilot program front, the city is set to order as many as five battery electric buses this summer — each one roughly twice the cost of a $500,000 diesel model — that are scheduled to join the fleet in 2027. CAT will wrestle with details such as driving range, maintenance requirements, and whether it makes sense to install on-site solar to charge the buses.

“I have serious concerns about longer routes and the impact of terrain because we’re quite a hilly town,” he said. “We’re talking about big heavy machines and the details can get technical.”

Bringing up to five hydrogen-powered buses on board by 2029 — at between $1.2 million and $1.3 million each — will be trickier. Most pressing is finding a nearby source of hydrogen fuel that doesn’t contribute to emissions of heat-trapping gases.

“We’re investigating the idea of on-site generation,” Chambers said. “But if we need to truck it in, where would it come from?”

CAT won’t necessarily choose one technology over the other as it replaces its diesel models, he said, adding that having both choices available provides an added benefit of resiliency.

Money for the pilot programs is a mix of federal, state and local dollars, with the bulk of it from the federal government. The exact funding formula is still in the works, he said. 

“Lucky for us, we won’t be the first out of the blocks,” Chambers said about gaining insights from transit agencies “on the bleeding edge to learn about the headaches they had to deal with.”

For instance, neighboring Blacksburg has put battery electric buses on the road, and leaders in Oakland, California; the Champaign-Urbana region of Illinois; and Montgomery County, a suburb of Washington, D.C.; have experience with hydrogen fuel cell buses.

He admitted that Charlottesville was a bit leery about delving into alternative technologies because of continued hassles with the 10 hybrid diesel buses it purchased about 15 years ago. Some of those models are still in the fleet. Parts of the hybrid drivetrain failed regularly and replacement parts were often on back order. As well, CAT had problems fully charging battery packs that didn’t last as long as promised.

“CAT couldn’t keep them on routes,” he said. “We didn’t want to end up with that same scenario.”

Getting everybody aboard the bus

Susan Kruse, C3’s executive director, said she recognized that some groups focused solely on climate issues were frustrated by the city’s plans to boost greenhouse gas emissions in the short term by not pivoting away from diesel immediately.

Her group tried to play the role of mediator because “it was best to take the time to get everyone literally and figuratively aboard the bus,” she said. 

“Sure, we would rather see buses move to zero emissions faster. But this is a great example of how moving toward a carbon-neutral community is difficult. This issue is complicated and we have to take the time to get it right.”

Generally, diesel buses cycle out of use after 12 years of service or accumulating 500,000 miles on the odometer.

It’s vital that CAT’s strategic plan calls for addressing shortcomings that frustrated riders, Kruse said. CAT will be doubling the amount of service, adding routes on nights and weekends, and limiting wait times between buses to 30 minutes.

She and her colleagues are especially pleased by the local environmental impact of battery electric and fuel cell buses powered by green or “gray” hydrogen produced using natural gas. A transition would improve air quality and reduce noise levels, according to the Kimley-Horn report.

For instance, the changeover would eliminate emissions of pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides and volatile organic compounds, all gases that are harmful to humans. For example, nitrogen oxides can irritate airways, aggravate asthma and other respiratory diseases, and lead to emergency room visits and hospital admissions.

As well, cleaner buses would reduce the tiniest bits of particulate matter by 25% when compared to diesel. The microscopic particles endanger human health because they can deeply embed in lungs and also enter the bloodstream. Regardless of bus technology, particulate matter is still produced by wear and tear on a vehicle’s brake pads and tires. 

C3 advocates and Chambers agree that Charlottesville’s achievements can be a model for smaller municipalities shifting to carbon-free buses. After all, the timeline for its proposed transition is ahead of Denver and Washington, D.C.

Setting an example doesn’t just apply to public transit, Chambers said, emphasizing that other communities view the university city as a test bed for plucky endeavors.

“In Charlottesville, we tend to think a bit bigger than our britches when it comes to policy decisions,” he said. “We do new bold things because we like to see if we can get it done.”

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