A $122 million contract to buy new biodiesel buses was approved Wednesday by the Metropolitan Council, despite blowback from critics who favored buying environmentally friendly electric buses instead.
The contract calls for the regional planning body to buy 143 buses from New Flyer of America Inc., which has operations in St. Cloud and Crookston. It was approved on a rare split vote, 11 to 4, and despite a vow by the Met Council three years ago to stop buying diesel buses after 2022 — a pledge to tamp down greenhouse gas emissions.
In a step toward electrification, the agency launched a pilot program by buying eight electric buses for Metro Transit's C line, a rapid bus route that began service in June 2019.
But transit operators quickly ran into issues with the buses' charging equipment, which is being replaced by the manufacturer. None of the electric buses are operating on the C line, which connects downtown Minneapolis with Brooklyn Center. Instead, diesel buses ferry passengers on the route.
In a briefing before the council last week, Metro Transit General Manager Wes Kooistra said the reliability of the electric buses and their chargers became an "ongoing issue."
In a 631-day period between June 2019 and February 2021, the electric bus chargers in the garage and along the route worked for just 152 days. There were only 10 days in that time when the electric buses and chargers were available in tandem.
However, Kooistra said the biodiesel bus purchase approved by the council Wednesday "does not in any way represent a backing away from the commitment we have for the electric bus pilot program."
He noted the 60-foot biodiesel buses are a better fit for three new transit lines in the works: the Orange Line bus-rapid transit route between Minneapolis and Burnsville, and the B and D rapid bus lines, as well as suburban commuter routes.
The D line will connect Brooklyn Center to the Mall of America, and the B linewill link Uptown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul. Because the routes cover a wide swath of the metro area, electric buses wouldn't be a good fit, Kooistra said.
But four members of the council on Wednesday opposed the biodiesel purchase. Several said they had received feedback from disgruntled constituents.
"I'm not satisfied this is the only option we had," said Council Member Phillip Sterner. "We need to go back to the drawing board."
Madi Johnson, an organizer with the advocacy group MN350, said some council members "admitted that their process was not transparent, even saying that they've never heard so much public outcry about a single issue. Community members have a lot of questions for the Met Council that are going unheard and unanswered."
One lingering question, Johnson said, was whether the council in the future will buy 40-foot electric buses, which are generally used for shorter and more-congested routes.
"Nobody expected Metro Transit to shift to electric buses overnight," said Joshua Houdek, a senior program manager for the Sierra Club's North Star Chapter. "But we need to make real progress toward a clean electric future."
Kooistra said each electric bus would have cost $570,000 more than a diesel bus, and each would require an expenditure of $125,000 for charging equipment.
Both Johnson and Houdek assailed Gov. Tim Walz for not including new money for transit in his budget, which could help the Met Council offset the cost of doing battle with climate change.
"Governor Walz isn't helping — his proposed operating budget includes little for climate and nothing for transit," Houdek said. "His lack of leadership is standing in the way of the Met Council moving forward on climate action."
Janet Moore • 612-673-7752