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Imagine a depot packed with nearly 100 buses, but no engine noise, no fumes, no drops of diesel staining the concrete expanse.
The notion that a bus hub could be, in a literal sense, spotless, was inconceivable until recently. But such a facility has sprung into existence in the far northern reaches of Los Angeles County, where the Antelope Valley Transit Authority has completed the nation’s first large-scale transit fleet electrification effort.
President Joe Biden wants half of all new vehicles sold in 2030 to be emissions-free. Climate leader California aims for carbon-free transit fleets by 2040, which requires stopping new diesel bus purchases by 2029. But the Antelope Valley — the windswept western edge of the Mojave Desert, home to the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale — made the transition in 2022.
Running fully electric service 18 years ahead of the state deadline is “an amazing achievement” that makes the ATVA “an example to other transit agencies,” said Liane Randolph, chair of the California Air Resources Board, speaking at the transit headquarters in Lancaster Wednesday.
“It really shows that you can build a zero-emissions fleet and meet the needs” of the agency, Randolph told Canary Media after the ceremony. “Projects like this require a lot of coordination and work and leadership. It’s absolutely 100 percent doable, and it will become routine over time.”
The desert community achieved this through engaged leadership, a stake in electric bus manufacturing, savvy navigation of disparate grant opportunities, and a willingness to bet on an electrified future that was eminently possible but had not yet been realized in the U.S.
The electrification project kicked off with two buses from Chinese manufacturer BYD in 2014. Back then, e-bus technology could not get commuters to Los Angeles and back without recharging, said Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris, a Republican first elected in 2008.
“Just a few short years ago, we were being laughed at, [told] that it was not possible,” Parris said. “There were a thousand reasons not to do it.”
But Parris and the local officials on AVTA’s board recognized early on the cleaner air, cheaper fuel costs and local workforce development that could result from going electric. The board unanimously approved the goal of full electrification in 2015.
Surveying some of the agency’s 87 electric buses queued up at chargers ringing the perimeter of the yard and noting the “600 mortgage-paying jobs” the city has gained from the factory BYD opened down the road, Parris turned magnanimous toward the doubters.
“We want to create a template for the world to follow,” he said. “We want to make it so easy that they can’t say no.”
Other agencies are already reaching out from “across the nation” to learn from this endeavor, said Esteban Rodriguez, director of operations and maintenance at AVTA.
“I’m talking to them, and they’ll come here,” he said. “We’re going to help them.”
Grant money unlocks operational savings
Doing something for the first time means there’s no roadmap to follow. AVTA created its own roadmap, which started with strong buy-in from elected officials who anticipated local benefits from the clean transportation economy. The next step was securing boatloads of grant money from a dizzying array of sources.
A breakdown published by AVTA tallies $52 million from various federal funds, $44 million from California programs, $460,000 from local sources and $8 million out of the agency’s capital reserve. That adds up to nearly $105 million, with relatively little outlay from the agency itself.
That money went to bus purchases: local city buses from BYD, MCI coach buses for the commuter lines, and GreenPower vans for microtransit. Then chargers had to be installed for all of them and contracts arranged with companies such as The Mobility House to optimize charging schedules with variables including bus routes and the price of electricity. The depot also got a 1.5-megawatt backup generator to step in if a grid outage disrupts charging.
But the agency also had to run extensive testing to determine the technical needs involved in serving its routes with battery-powered vehicles, what types of chargers were necessary and where to install them. Then it needed to train drivers to handle a vehicle that has a dashboard dial for “state of charge” instead of a gas tank meter.
Complicating things, AVTA doesn’t just drive local routes; it also runs commuter coach buses from the desert into downtown L.A., often facing brutal rush-hour traffic.
Having managed the financing, AVTA now reaps the rewards. The material improvement of an electric bus becomes palpable as soon as one leaves the station: a smooth ride with no physical rumbling and vibration from a combustion engine, hardly any noise at all, and no diesel fumes wafting in on passengers.
“If you put in the time, you will get a result like this. […] Riding in these big zero-emissions vehicles is amazing,” Randolph said. “The driver experience is different; the rider experience is different.”
Metrics such as miles between service interruptions and fleet availability improved with electrification, according to AVTA data.
There are financial benefits as well.
The fuel cost per mile to run diesel buses as of January was $1.05 per mile driven, Rodriguez noted. Electric fuel cost $0.51 per mile, equating to half the cost of diesel.
That’s significant savings already. But AVTA now monetizes its reduction in fossil fuel usage through California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard. When AVTA tracks its fuel reduction and sells the credits, the incentive completely wipes out the cost of electricity, and the agency ends up getting paid $0.15 per mile driven.
Not only has AVTA insulated itself from the risk of volatile fuel prices — it’s turned fuel costs into a moneymaker.
Parlaying fleet electrification into local jobs
Antelope Valley leaders didn’t see fleet electrification as the province of the transit agency alone. They seized the opportunity for broader economic benefit by hosting BYD’s new electric bus factory, which is sited just minutes down the road from AVTA headquarters in Lancaster, “a town on the Mojave where the dust blew through,” as Joan Didion describes it in Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
The company bought an old RV factory in 2013 and tripled its footprint in 2017. Now the 550,000-square-foot facility has capacity to build 1,500 buses per year, though so far it has produced 600, a BYD spokesperson told Canary Media on a tour Wednesday.
The workers assemble buses largely by hand, since each fleet has its own highly customized bus designs. Union workers weld metal frames together, prepare the wiring for BYD battery packs, paint the exteriors and fit the vehicles with seats and windows.
If what was good for General Motors was good for America, the same goes for BYD and the Antelope Valley. (Across the country in South Carolina, U.S. manufacturer Proterra’s electric bus factory spurred early fleet electrification in nearby communities too.)
BYD provided the community with more than buses: One of its top sales executives left the company to run AVTA and deliver on the ambitious electrification project.
Macy Neshati sold the first round of BYD buses to the AVTA. When the CEO job opened up at AVTA in 2018, he took on the role to help his old customer execute the electric transition underway there.
“I came here and found this amazing team of very dedicated people, all very conscious of the environment, all very conscious of their grandkids and the world we’re going to leave behind for them,” Neshati told Canary Media Wednesday.
Electric bus sales are not a conventional pipeline to transit-agency leadership. But Neshati’s background armed him with confidence at a time when many others were waiting to see what e-buses could do.
“I understood the technology,” Neshati said, describing it as an update to the electric streetcars that carried passengers back in the 1890s. “If you look at it that way and drop the fear factor, it just happens.”