Pierce Transit goes green

From the editorial board

Pierce County is officially hip.

The multitude of man-buns, vegan restaurants and yoga studios got us close, but with electric buses soon to be cruising our streets, we are now bona fide.

Pierce Transit recently won a $2.55 million federal grant that will enable the purchase of two all-electric, zero-emission buses, which means we will be one of a handful of “left-coast” cities leading the charge away from fossil fuel dependence and toward green transportation.

Portland, (ground-zero for all things hipster) Spokane and Seattle are among the cities that already employ electric buses, and they all report success.

Like Pierce Transit, these cities’ transportation departments gave way to the classic electric vehicle pitch: Come to the green side, trade in your gas guzzlers and reduce your emissions footprint.

Opponents to electric transportation might argue that the whole life cycle of energy has to be considered before determining whether electric vehicles leave less of an environmental footprint.

If a high proportion of electricity is generated by coal, rather than wind, solar or hydroelectric, then greenhouse gas emissions are about the same as fossil fuel transportation.

But there’s no debate over diesel buses; they are one of the least efficient modes of transportation, getting only four miles to the gallon. It’s why Pierce Transit began its commitment to clean energy 30 years ago.

Most of Pierce Transit’s fleet runs on the less-offensive compressed natural gas, but diesel buses still make up about 20 percent of Pierce Transit’s fleet. The new electric buses will get some of those diesel buses off our streets.

The new buses, aptly named Catalyst, don’t come cheap. They’re known as the Tesla Model S of buses; their average price is around $1 million. Cost savings are promised later in reduced operating and maintenance costs.

Pierce Transit received the money from the federal government’s Low or No Emission Vehicle Deployment Program, part of a $55 million national allocation meant for 20 transit providers. It’s another indication that both national and state government seem to be in full-speed-ahead mode when it comes to greener transportation.

Last week, the White House announced a new set of federal initiatives to entice individual consumers to switch over to sustainable energy vehicles, and earlier this year, our own Legislature expanded the range of electric vehicle models that qualify for a sales tax exemption.

The state of Washington aims to have 50,000 electric cars on the road by 2020; currently there are 16,000 registered electric cars in the state. While car companies like Tesla are working to innovate cheaper green alternatives, consumers are slow to buy.

Incentives like tax exemptions and free parking may help, but what will ultimately drive market transformation is more charging stations. If the state wants to reach that lofty goal of 50,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2020, more infrastructure has to be in place.

An affliction already exists among current electric car motorists, and it’s called, “range anxiety.” Most electric vehicles can cover 100 miles before needing a 10-minute charge. Last week, 400 people attended a conference in Portland to discuss how to increase charging availability. The Seattle Times reported on a program that will roll out next year to increase charging stations across their city.

It’s a hopeful sign that over the last eight years, charging stations have increased nationally from 500 to 16,000, but even with that improvement, electric cars are mostly found in the punchline of jokes and not in people’s driveways.

Nationally only 2 percent of the cars on the road are electric vehicles. The full adoption of this greener transportation may take some time, but for now, Pierce Transit is asking us to follow their buses into the future.

It might be time to hop aboard.