Planning Under Way for Los Angeles Zero Emissions Bus Fleet

WSP USA is preparing a master plan for Los Angeles to convert to a zero emissions bus fleet by 2030.

Working on behalf of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) and in joint venture with STV, WSP is creating an analysis of Metro’s network of 165 bus and bus rapid transit routes and 12 maintenance facilities, making recommendations for the procurement of a new bus fleet, and identifying modifications at facilities necessary to support the fleet.

“The master plan will provide a year-by-year schedule that will help Metro achieve a 100-percent zero-emissions bus fleet by their target of 2030,” said Cliff Henke, senior program manager for WSP.

It is the largest such commitment to a zero emissions bus (ZEB) fleet in the U.S., and one of the largest in the world.

“Metro has set a very ambitious schedule, as they will have to procure and deliver about 240-250 buses per year in order to meet their goal,” Henke said. “We are also looking at training, safety planning, disaster planning and cyber security for the bus fleet.”

The 29-month project started in October. The joint venture arrangement combines the resources and expertise of WSP and STV, two firms with extensive experience delivering large transportation projects in Los Angeles County and an understanding of this rapidly growing technology.

“The data we gather for this plan will account for a lot of variables, including climate, elevation, length of routes and stops,” Henke said. “The real-world data collected from buses today will be used to predict how the zero emissions buses will do on those routes in different conditions.”

Raymond Tellis, director of the Federal Transportation Administration’s Los Angeles metropolitan office, applauds Metro’s announced commitment to a 100-percent zero emissions bus fleet by 2030.

Route Review

In general, public transportation operations have three basic options to consider for a ZEB fleet: Battery buses, which are charged overnight or while in transit; fuel cell buses, which use hydrogen as the fuel, creating a chemical reaction that generates electricity; or electric trolley buses, which use overhead wires to power the vehicle, similar to what is currently found in San Francisco and Seattle.

“More than likely, Metro will be adopting battery buses,” Henke said. “Regardless of what option Metro chooses, modifying the facilities will be a major part of the project, and they will need to work with electric utilities to connect the charging stations to the grid.”

While the price of electricity for vehicles is improving, it can still be two- to three-times as expensive as the comparable rate for gasoline vehicles, particularly in California, making the transition a difficult one for many transportation agencies to make.

“That is one of the biggest challenges we face nationwide, as electric utilities, while amenable, aren’t really set up to provide transit agencies with favorable rates,” Henke said. “We are assisting our clients in proving information as they begin negotiating with utilities to show them how much power they will need and how it might benefit both transit and utilities if rates would make ZEB operations more affordable. Fortunately, we have seen the capital cost of ZEBs versus conventional diesel narrowing over the past several years, and we anticipate it will continue to drop 10-15 percent a year over the next several years.”

As the master plan creates a time table for transition to a fully electric fleet, planners are also evaluating current bus routes throughout Los Angeles to determine if they need to be modified to accommodate these vehicles.

“The facilities need to be capable of handling the anticipated fleet, with provisions like the equipment needed to cool state-of-the-art charging units,” he said.

“It will also take an enormous amount of infrastructure planning to bury the power lines to the recharging stations and design switchgear, substations and other systems for the charging units,” Henke said. “We will assess the facilities, the routes, and how these buses will behave en route using our proprietary modeling tools.”

Taking Charge

One of the key challenges with the master plan centers around the battery charging capabilities for each zero emissions bus.

“Right now, electric buses are capable of traveling, at most, about 200 miles per charge, which may be a little short for many of the current routes,” Henke said. “Because the current technology does not allow for at least 300 miles, which transit agencies typically specify of their bus procurements in practice, we are looking at several operational options, including the need for layovers or the purchase of additional buses.”

One area where strides have been made is with the time it takes to fully charge a battery. Some extended range batteries have recently achieved a three- or four-hour charge, but not too long ago the same battery would require at least a four- or five-hour charge.

Although it would be more efficient to complete an entire bus route on one charge, the buses are designed with batteries that can be removed and replaced with freshly charged batteries, minimizing the time that a bus would be out of service.

“As part of the master plan we are anticipating what will be like after 2030; but technology improvements are a moving target, so we have to continually adapt our approaches to accommodate,” Henke said. “For example, it may one day be possible to remove and replace batteries while the bus is in operation or charge buses for a full 300-mile range; but until that day arrives we lean on the conservative side with projections to set realistic expectations while accommodating future technology.”

To meet current and future needs, the master plan will assess the need to modify facilities along the bus routes to provide maintenance facilities that will eventually allow for en route charging of the electric buses.

Rendering shows the proposed overhead charging system for the Metro Orange Line Electric Bus Program that would charge buses like this New Flyer Xcelsior XE60 articulated battery-electric bus.

A Transit Revolution

One of the driving forces behind the progress of this project has been its widespread public support. “While the master plan is being informed by the economics and feasibility of the ZEB transition, the project has received a lot of public and political support at the county level as well as the state level due to its environmental benefits,” Henke said.

He sees it as a trend that will continue to grow across the U.S. in the coming years.

“As demand grows and more manufacturers become comfortable with the technology, we believe that the cost for these buses will continue to come down,” Henke said. “Utilities will be much more adept at supporting these vehicles, and microgrid strategies will also aide with battery charging.”

Advances in smart technology will help the network evolve and adapt into a more efficient and responsive system for commuters.

“We will continue to see other advanced tech incorporated into these vehicles,” Henke said. “The ability for the vehicles to be monitored for passenger information, real time dynamic monitoring and vehicle-to-vehicle technology will also work their way into these buses. In fact, they are already being introduced at the pilot scale.”

He is thrilled that WSP is on the front lines of what he called “a revolution in transit.”

“I see this project as a capstone to my career in a way. Everything I’ve done to date has been a path to what we are doing for Metro and other clients today,” Henke said. “To have this opportunity to witness the revolution is enormously challenging and gratifying.”

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