ZEBs produce zero tailpipe emissions and can be either battery electric buses (BEBs) or hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric buses (FCEBs).  -  Photo: NVTC

ZEBs produce zero tailpipe emissions and can be either battery electric buses (BEBs) or hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric buses (FCEBs).

Photo: NVTC

The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) announced it is coordinating among transit agencies in Northern Virginia on the transition to zero-emission bus (ZEB) fleets.

NVTC's Northern Virginia Zero-Emission Bus Strategic Plan outlines regional strategies to help the agencies reach sustainability goals while providing transit service to riders.

Ann McGrane, senior program manager at NVTC, addressed what the agency learned while developing the plan.

"Flexibility is important," McGrane said. "We're in a space where ZEB technology is continuing to mature and change, so it's important that plans allow for the change to occur while still advancing the goal of zero-emission transportation. Try to avoid proprietary technologies and stagger purchases so that new advancements can be integrated into fleets over time. Given the number of operators within Northern Virginia, interoperability is a key issue that we plan to focus on going forward."

Challenges That Come with ZEBs

ZEBs produce zero tailpipe emissions and can be either battery-electric buses (BEBs) or hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric buses (FCEBs).

However, the transition to ZEBs presents challenges:

  • Cost and Funding: ZEBs typically cost more than $1 million per bus and require new charging or fueling infrastructure
  • Operational Differences: Current BEBs cannot replace diesel buses on a 1:1 basis for all routes due to their shorter ranges
  • Availability: Grid capacity for BEBs and hydrogen supply for FCEBs remain critical pathways to successfully implementing ZEBs
  • Workforce Development: Whether a BEB or a FCEB, ZEBs require new skills for the transit workforce

McGrane addressed the biggest challenge that agencies face when transitioning to ZEBs.

"One reason why the zero-emission transition is so widely discussed is that there are a series of challenges to confront," McGrane said. "It is hard to single out one issue as the biggest challenge, as that answer will likely change based on where an agency is in the transition process. Partially due to our role in the region, NVTC views funding as a critical challenge for the ZEB transition. Our region has facilities that were purpose-built for diesel or CNG fleets that now need to be renovated to handle charging infrastructure or hydrogen fueling infrastructure, often within constrained facility spaces."

NVTC Implementing ZEB Strategies

NVTC's strategies include actions that are already underway, such as facilitating a ZEB working group and educating staff and local elected officials on ZEB advancements.

The plan also identifies the quick wins that staff can begin in 2024 and build from in the coming years.

NVTC's ZEB strategies include:

  • Serve as a regional ZEB forum
  • Advocate for consistent and supportive ZEB standards and policies
  • Provide regional ZEB funding coordination
  • Support the development of shared BEB charging infrastructure
  • Evaluate opportunities for private partnerships related to ZEBs
  • Support ZEB workforce training and education

McGrane added that NVTC's strategic plan is focused on ways that the agency can provide value to the transit agencies within the region.

"Each of the five transit agencies in the NVTC transportation district, as well as two more that operate within the boundaries, are at different stages in their transition to ZEBs," McGrane said. "Our purpose is to identify cross-jurisdictional efforts that can make their individual transitions easier from a cost or operational perspective. NVTC serves as a forum for regional coordination, collaboration, and funding for transit, so those were the areas where we thought we could make the biggest impact."

NVTC vetted these strategies with local jurisdictional staff and its commissioners to ensure that they would be useful, according to McGrane.

NVTC's strategies include actions that are already underway, such as facilitating a ZEB working group and educating staff and local elected officials on ZEB advancements.  -  Photo: NVTC

NVTC's strategies include actions that are already underway, such as facilitating a ZEB working group and educating staff and local elected officials on ZEB advancements.

Photo: NVTC

Other Zero-Emission Efforts for NVTC

The agency said it is prioritizing working with partners to identify long-term, sustainable, and dedicated funding to meet WMATA's capital and operating needs.

McGrane discussed other zero-emissions efforts NVTC is focusing on.

"We have the Commuter Choice grant program that reinvests toll revenues into projects that provide alternatives to driving alone," McGrane said. "Finally, the Northern Virginia Zero-Emission Bus Strategic Plan is only the start of our ZEB efforts. Our next steps involve evaluating the feasibility of shared on-route charging infrastructure and helping our local agencies share lessons learned and preliminary data from operating ZEBs."

About the author
Louis Prejean

Louis Prejean

Assistant Editor

Assistant editor Louis Prejean works on Metro Magazine and Automotive Fleet. The Louisiana native is now covering the fleet industry after years of radio and reporting experience.

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