Phoenix buses may go electric, Peoria tries autonomous shuttle as batteries improve

December 31, 2021

Phoenix is considering switching to battery electric public buses as technology improves and as running the buses in hot weather becomes more feasible.

It will be a long and initially costly process, since Phoenix has hundreds of city buses and electric buses are more expensive, but the Phoenix City Council believes it's worth it as they try to put the city on a path to meeting a new long-term carbon neutral goal.

Valley Metro, which operates most of the other public buses in Maricopa County, is also exploring how to eventually make the switch.

The council will hear from staff on Jan. 26 about how the city can begin to replace aging compressed natural gas and diesel buses with electric buses. In November, the council postponed a decision on a bus replacement plan that would have committed $145 million for new natural gas or biodiesel buses over the next five years and asked staff to come back with another option.

Councilwoman Yassamin Ansari,  who joined the council in early 2021 and has a background in environmental advocacy, has been working closely with staff to try to shape that plan, which she said is crucial for the city to meet its environmental goals and take advantage of the latest clean fuel technology.

"This is absolutely crucial," Ansari said. "We are investing a lot of time and expertise into (the city's climate plan) and setting ambitious goals, so I think it's critical that the city of Phoenix leads the way with our own fleet especially if we are going around setting goals for the broader public as well. We need to lead by example."

The short-term plan may be to approve the replacement of aging buses in one- or two-year increments, so the council can frequently evaluate what type is best, at the same time the city starts adding and testing electric and electric hybrid buses through programs and grants.

Phoenix has been at a standstill in the last few years on the issue, as other cities across the country have begun using battery electric buses, in part because previous studies by Valley Metro and Phoenix have shown that the need to pump air conditioning in the buses dramatically reduces battery life. Also, because of metro Phoenix's urban sprawl, many bus routes are longer here than elsewhere. That means buses would need to be taken out of service mid-day to be recharged.

But battery technology has advanced quickly, and Valley Metro announced this summer that its latest study, conducted in 2020, was promising. Warm climate areas of Tucson and Miami-Dade County already have started the switch to electric buses.

Northwest of Phoenix, the suburb of Peoria is launching an electric vehicle shuttle with driverless technology. Peoria's first pilot program began in 2020 with a battery electric autonomous van that shuttled fans near its spring training ballpark. The second pilot, also with a driverless van, will shuttle mostly older adults in the city's healthcare district.

Long and costly process to replace fleet

It will take time and money to get electric buses up and running across the Valley.

About 900 buses are owned and operated by Valley Metro, Phoenix, Glendale or Scottsdale under the Valley Metro brand. About two-thirds are compressed natural gas, and one-third are diesel.

Of those, Phoenix owns and operates about 500, and runs service in the city and for other cities, providing 55% of regional bus service miles in the Valley. Valley Metro owns and operates 236 buses.

Making the city more environmentally friendly has been one of Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego's goals, and she's found an ally in Ansari.

The council approved a climate action plan in October that strives to cut carbon emissions in the city by 50% by 2030 and become carbon-neutral by 2050.

While holding off on the bus replacement program in November, the council approved a $25 million, five-year pilot program to buy electric hybrid, battery electric and/or hydrogen power buses. The program will establish a sub-fleet of "green buses" the city can test to determine the best passenger loads, equipment and air-conditioning systems.

The council may expand that program to $150 million, according to a plan presented by staff in December.

The idea of switching to electric buses sees support across the aisle from Republican Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who told staff in November he didn't want to hear why the city couldn't or shouldn't do it, but how the city could make it happen.

What would it cost to switch to electric?

Battery electric buses have a higher upfront cost, but potentially lower maintenance and fuel costs could help make up the difference. 

Valley Metro said its compressed natural gas buses cost about $567,000 and Phoenix said it cost about $550,000. In the latest federal grant Valley Metro and Phoenix applied for jointly, but did not receive, the electric buses cost about $942,000 each, with needed components such as chargers, charging stations and cables totaling about $2 million, according to information provided by Valley Metro.

There also would be costs associated with hiring new or training existing staff on how to maintain the new fleet, and bus schedules or usage may need reworked based on battery life.

Electric bus manufacturers say the buses are cost-effective in the long run. One company, New Flyer, estimates its electric bus over time will save $400,000 in fuel expenses and $125,000 in averted maintenance costs.

There have been challenges in six cities that were early adopters of electric buses, but they have overall performed well and been less expensive to maintain, according to a study led in part by national nonprofit public interest research group U.S. PIRG Education.

The council believes it's worth it for the environmental savings alone.

Over its entire life cycle, an electric bus produces less than half of the carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions per mile as produced by natural gas or diesel-hybrid buses, according to a 2018 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

And Phoenix and Valley Metro's potential demand for the buses may propel the battery electric bus industry in Arizona, making the buses more cost-effective in the future.

Several residents and environmental advocates spoke in favor of electric buses at the November meeting. Autumn Johnson, a member of the city's ad hoc electric vehicle subcommittee, told the council that "public interest is not served by continuing to invest in fossil fuels."