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Suffolk County rolls ahead with plans to introduce electric buses

Darnell Tyson, chief deputy commissioner of the Suffolk

Darnell Tyson, chief deputy commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Public Works, at the Suffolk Bus Corp. yard in Ronkonkoma.   Credit: Barry Sloan

Suffolk County is beginning an effort to replace its public transit buses with electric models, a project that will be expensive but could improve the county’s air quality, which routinely rates among the worst in the state.

The county is preparing to solicit proposals this year from manufacturers for the first batch of electric buses, which have zero tailpipe emissions and could begin serving riders as early as next year, according to Darnell Tyson, chief deputy commissioner of the county Public Works Department.

The plan comes at the behest of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who announced last year the state wanted Suffolk County Transportation and four other transit agencies to upgrade a quarter of their public transit buses to electric by 2025 and the rest by 2035 as part of the state’s efforts to combat global warming.

That means swapping out the 160 or so vehicles that make up Suffolk’s fleet of "fixed-route" buses, which have predetermined stops and timetables. Most of those are powered by diesel fuel, while the rest are diesel-electric hybrids.

With a new electric bus going for around $900,000, the cost to upgrade the entire fleet will probably reach $144 million, Suffolk spokesman Derek Poppe said. The state and federal governments will probably provide the bulk of the funding, with the county paying a yet-undetermined amount as well, he said.

The investment will be worth it, environmental experts said, given the benefits to Suffolk’s air quality and the environment.

The American Lung Association has given the county’s air quality a failing grade in recent years for its high levels of ground-level ozone — a pollutant created by sources including car emissions, which can cause health problems.

Traffic is partially to blame for Suffolk's air issues, but weather and geography also play a part, said Michael Seilback, national assistant vice president for state public policy at the American Lung Association. For example, westerly winds routinely blow pollution spewed by smokestacks in the Midwest to Long Island.

"Transportation is a major contributor to the region's air pollution problems, and diesel vehicles are a large portion of that pollution," Seilback said. "Anything we could do to electrify fleets across the board is going to help Suffolk County residents breathe cleaner air."

Nassau County’s air might be dirty, too, but the county does not monitor ozone levels, said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, a New York and Connecticut advocacy group with an office in Farmingdale.

The Nassau Inter-County Express was not one of the bus systems tapped by the state to upgrade to electric. NICE chief executive Jack Khzouz said the system's 320 fixed-route buses already run on compressed natural gas, a fuel that is cleaner than diesel. The county probably will not upgrade its entire fleet to electric, Khzouz said, but it does plan to buy some electric models.

Vehicle emissions are also warming the planet. Transportation caused more than a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States in 2018, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

All the more reason to welcome the initiative in Suffolk, said Esposito, who called the county’s bus electrification plan "a good investment for the environment and public health."

But the effort will not solve Suffolk’s air issues by itself.

Fan Tong, a former project scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California who has studied bus electrification, said public transit makes up only 5% to 10% of transportation emissions in the United States. The main source of those emissions in places like Suffolk and elsewhere, Tong said, is the sheer number of people driving cars.

Suffolk’s plan "will make a positive impact, but it will not completely solve the problem," he said.

The way to address that problem, Esposito said, is to figure out how to get more Long Islanders onto public trains and buses — perhaps a tall order for a region as car-dependent as Long Island.

"The real issue is providing a mass transit system that is affordable and reliable," she said. "Right now, we don’t have one that is either of those things."

Tong also noted that, in general, the electricity that powers electric buses may itself derive from fossil fuels. In parts of the country that rely heavily on fossil fuels for electricity, electrifying buses may not on balance benefit air quality and the environment, Tong said. But he said electric buses in Suffolk would provide an environmental benefit, given the sources of electricity in New York.

Natural gas is the main source of Long Island’s electricity, followed by solar power and oil, according to Elizabeth Flagler, a spokeswoman for PSEG Long Island. She noted renewable energy will make up a greater proportion of the electricity sources by 2035.

Suffolk’s electrification plan will face challenges.

Tong noted electric buses can drive fewer miles before needing to recharge than diesel buses before they run out of gas. But electric vehicle batteries are getting stronger, he said, and such issues also can be addressed by careful route planning by the county.

Suffolk also will need to build charging ports at its bus depots, which could cost an additional $1.8 million, Poppe said.

Hurdles notwithstanding, observers said the effort to electrify vehicles in Suffolk is worth it, even if the benefits to air quality and the environment are relatively modest.

"Everything’s incremental. There’s no wand we can wave and say, ‘Now these buses are cleaner, therefore the pollution problem’s gone,’ " Seilback said. "But it’s absolutely going to move us in the right direction."

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