Climate activists call on CTA to cancel plans to buy more diesel buses

The CTA has more than 1,800 diesel-powered buses in its fleet. Of those, 1,200 are at or beyond their life expectancy — they’re 12 to 14 years old and have been driven an average of nearly 600,000 miles.

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One of the CTA’s electric buses uses a quick-charging stations at the Navy Pier bus turnaround.

One of the CTA’s electric buses uses a quick-charging station at the Navy Pier bus turnaround.

Chicago Transit Authority

An environmental group wants the CTA to suspend plans to buy 500 diesel-powered buses, and is urging the transit agency to commit to its goal of a fully electric bus fleet by 2040.

But the Chicago Transit Authority says it must purchase the diesel buses to meet its short-term needs, since nearly 70% of its fleet is nearing the end of its expected lifespan — or already has surpassed it.

“CTA was one of the first transit systems to demo an EV bus back in 2014, but they have been very slow on the uptake,” said Bruce Mainzer, vice chair of the Climate Reality Project, Chicago chapter.

“CTA is falling behind other systems,” Mainzer added, noting the target dates for full electrification are 2030 in Los Angeles and 2035 in Seattle.

CTA released its “Charging Forward” plan in February, providing a roadmap for the full electrification of its buses by 2040. But while the report presents a clear path, it also lays out the challenges the overhaul presents for its entire system, one of the biggest being infrastructure — adding charging stations to garages and along bus routes.

Mainzer, who had served in executive roles with both the Regional Transportation Authority and the Illinois Department of Transportation, said purchasing additional diesel-powered buses runs opposite to the goals CTA has laid out in its plan for a fully electric fleet.

Brian Steele, a CTA spokesman, said carrying out the plan for electrification can’t be done by simply purchasing new electric buses but rather must be done methodically. After all, he said, what good is an electric bus if there’s no place to charge it?

“To operate and support a fleet of eBuses requires extensive charging infrastructure and significant electrical power upgrades across the service area,” Steele said. “CTA’s eBus deployment must be planned and designed to ensure sufficient charging infrastructure is available to accommodate bus service and schedules.”

An electric bus operated by the CTA.

The CTA’s first electric buses went into service in 2014.

Sun-Times Media

Electric buses use use two main types of charging systems. The first is a slow charge, typically used overnight, where a bus is parked. Two or three buses can use this charging system at a time.

The second is a fast charger, which is more like refueling, since it recharges the bus quickly. The expectation is the electric buses would get a sufficient fast charge in about 15 minutes, similar to the time it takes to refuel a diesel bus.

There are seven CTA bus garages in Chicago and one heavy maintenance facility, all of which will need new charging infrastructure to support a full electric fleet. A total of 500 to 600 slow chargers and an additional 30 to 40 fast chargers will need to be installed throughout CTA’s garages.

The charging stations present the biggest hurdle for CTA in adding electric buses more quickly.

But Steele also noted there isn’t even sufficient capacity yet to manufacture the thousands of electric buses needed nationwide.

The CTA has more than 1,800 diesel buses in its fleet. Of those, 1,200 are at or beyond their life expectancy — 12 to 14 years old, with an average of nearly 600,000 miles on them.

First on the list to be replaced is a bus in service since 2000.

“Buses of this age with such extensive mileage are subject to breakdowns and maintenance issues at a higher rate, causing overall system reliability issues,” Steele said. “And these older buses also have significantly lower fuel efficiency and higher emissions than new diesel buses.”

Mainzer acknowledges the need for charging stations and the difficulties in getting electric buses from manufacturers because of supply chain issues. Still, he argues the CTA should be moving more aggressively toward keeping its promise.

That means placing orders for electric buses now and setting up a pipeline that would produce more electric buses gradually over the coming years, he said.

“I agree they can’t get enough electric buses, but you don’t purchase a brand new diesel bus and keep it on the road for 14 years,” Mainzer said.

“When you think about it, that means about a third of the fleet will be operating with diesel through the 2030s,” he added. “And that is just unacceptable.”

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