Yesterday, the board of directors of Houston’s transit agency, METRO Houston, voted unanimously to approve a goal to purchase only zero-emissions vehicles by 2030.
As I told the Houston Chronicle, “Metro has made one of the strongest commitments to public transit electrification in the nation. We applaud their forward-thinking leadership; this is a great day for all Houstonians, not just the ones riding the bus.”
It’s a huge victory and comes after years of advocacy. Here’s how it happened.
We launched our Electric Buses For Texas campaign back in 2018. Texans take millions of bus rides around our cities every month. But most of the buses on the road are diesel, powered by dirty fossil fuels, polluting our communities, endangering our health and putting our climate at greater risk. The good news is that all-electric buses are here, and they’re cleaner, healthier and often cheaper to run in the long-term. So we set out to switch all of Texas’ buses to electric by 2030.
We kicked off the campaign with our report Electric Buses: Clean Transportation for Healthier Neighborhoods and Cleaner Air in May 2018. The report documented the health threats from diesel exhaust and showed that dramatic declines in battery costs and improvements in performance, including expanded driving range, have made electric buses a viable alternative to diesel-powered and other fossil fuel buses.
In fact, our research estimates that by switching to all electric buses, Houston METRO will avert 21,000 tons of carbon emissions each year.
We distributed the report to transit agencies around the state and urged them to make the switch. Hearing from agencies that the biggest obstacle to adoption was cost, we followed up with a second report, Paying for Electric Buses: Financing Tools for Cities and Agencies to Ditch Diesel, and called on Austin’s Capital Metro to make a commitment to purchase only zero-emissions vehicles moving forward, slowly phasing out the dirty diesel buses polluting our communities. We also wrote a letter to the federal government in support of their grant proposal.
It worked! In December 2018 Capital Metro voted to set a 100% electric goal as part of its Project Connect expansion plan. Then in April of 2019, on Earth Day, they announced plans to build a new facility capable of charging 200 electric buses–the largest facility of its kind in the nation at the time.
Our initial outreach to METRO Houston was less promising. As Texas Climate News noted, “Houston’s METRO, an early adopter of fuel-saving hybrid bus technology, is nevertheless running late to the e-bus party.” The transit agency worried electric buses didn’t have the range, or sufficient air conditioning, to withstand Houston’s hot roads, or that they would cost too much. We worked to alleviate their concerns, but quickly realized it was going to take much more work to get Houston to act.
In July 2019, we recruited community leaders in Houston to sign a letter to METRO Board Chair Carrin Patman urging her to make the switch to electric. We pointed out that, according to our research, such a move could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 43 million pounds each year in Houston.
We knew that METRO was working to win voter approval that fall for their METRONext plan to invest in new light rail, bus rapid transit and more sidewalks and bus shelters. We thought the plan was important for the environment and that our campaigning for it would help demonstrate to METRO and to Chair Patman the importance of environmentalists and electric buses to their success.
So we set out to help pass the ballot measure, Proposition A. Together with our sister organization Environment Texas, we:
Provided an environment analysis of the impacts of METRONext, including the fact that METRONext will take an estimated 500,000 cars off the road each day by 2040 and that electric buses would reduce pollution ever further.
Organized a press conference with Chair Carrin Patman, Harris County Judge Hidalgo and other community leaders to speak out for Prop A.
Recruited students at Rice University to phonebank voters
Collected “photo petitions” and held visibility events
And generated media coverage, including in the Houston Chronicle and on KPRC Channel 2, on the environmental benefits of METRONext.
Ultimately, Houston voters approved METRO’s Proposition A by a margin of 68 to 32. METRO Chair Patman was very grateful for our work. We immediately followed up after the victory and met with her and Thomas Jasien, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, to encourage METRO to take the next step and commit to 100% electric buses. We had a very productive meeting, but we were told they weren’t ready to take the next steps, despite being interested in our research, especially that each electric bus they bought would save them $175,000 over the lifetime of the bus vs a diesel equivalent.
Our staff with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in February 2020
We kept up the work, making our case to Houston Mayor Turner at a METRONext victory party in February 2020. The mayor is a huge supporter of electric vehicles, launching EVOLVE Houston to encourage adoption of electric vehicles across sectors. We were proud to be part of the creation of EVOLVE, attending the first couple meetings and helping to set goals and early action plans.
In April 2020, after the start of the pandemic, we continued to work to engage Carrin Patman. We organized a webinar for Boy Scouts to earn their Sustainability Merit Badge from home and had Carrin speak about creating sustainable communities through public transportation.
In May 2020, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute cited our research in their report, Analysis of Electric Bus Deployments at Transit Agencies.
Victory has many fathers, of course. Our allies at the Environmental Defense Fund, Evolve Houston, Houston Sierra Club and others all played critical roles. Electric bus manufacturers also made their case to METRO and ultimately were able to deliver a product that met the agency’s needs.
In June of this year, we got our first win with METRO, with the agency committing to buy 20 electric buses. When we started this work in 2018, there were no electric buses in regular service in Texas. Now, Houston will join the cities of Austin, Dallas, Lubbock, Port Arthur, San Antonio, McAllen, and Odessa, which all have electric buses deployed.
Only Houston and Austin have committed to move completely to zero emission buses though, so we still have work to do!