The City Council told leaders at the Big Blue Bus to (figuratively) step on the gas when comes to transitioning their fleet of 200 buses to electric vehicles.

At their Tuesday night meeting, the Council also gave the go-ahead for a pilot program with at least 10 electric buses.  Eventually, an all electric fleet would reduce the BBB’s greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 70 percent, as long as the agency procures 100 percent renewable electricity, according to a staff analysis.

“It may be a little bit painful to buy some buses, folks, but it’s our job to do it,” said Councilmember Terry O’Day said during a Council study session Tuesday. “We have the responsibility to lead in this county on these issues and to take the risks.”

The BBB’s fleet is already fueled by renewable natural gas.  A staff analysis estimated switching the fleet to battery electric would increase costs by an additional $78 million dollars through 2040, bringing the capital and operational costs to nearly half a billion dollars for the time frame.  The analysis, however, did not factor in all funding options or construction costs if the maintenance yard requires additional electrical capacity to charge the fleet.

“We’re taking our last delivery of the near-zero (emission) buses this fall,” said City Manager Rick Cole Tuesday. “The goal here, to be clear, is to move to a zero emission future. Running this pilot before we order a slew of new buses is a way to make sure we’re buying the right buses.”

Santa Monica is not the only local transit agency looking to transition their fleet to electric vehicles to help reduce pollution and combat global warming. LA Metro has ordered 100 zero emission vehicles to transition their fleet. Foothill Transit in the San Gabriel Valley already has 30 zero emission buses, with 14 in regular service.

Officials with Southern California Edison sent a letter to the Council criticizing the staff report for overestimating the costs of electrification and underestimating the benefits.

“The procurement decisions now will impact california for generations to come, it is therefore important that we invest wisely,” said SCE’s government affairs manager Diane Forte.  Forte says there is sufficient power for 23 electric chargers at current facilities, should the BBB choose to replace retiring buses with electric ones.

The transition to electric comes as the agency faces significant headwinds and declining ridership over the system’s 58 square mile service area.  Ridership is down 20 percent over the last three years, according to BBB director Ed King. The agency is on track to purchase more buses in 2021 to replace the aging fleet.

Cole said that means the agency should plan carefully amid shifting transportation trends. The BBB faces challenges as more commuters buy or lease their own cars, use ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft or take the Expo line.

“What we’re talking about is taking one step at a time,” Cole said. “People want us to leap into the great unknown.”

Despite declining ridership, the service still transports about 13.6 million passengers a year.  The BBB will now work on a transition plan to understand the costs and tradeoffs of an all electric fleet.

“It’s our job to get started on this and we have to get going,” O’Day said.


Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press