Diesel- and natural gas-powered buses have been a significant part of our public transportation systems for most of the past century. Over the next century, as the entire transportation sector seeks to reduce our carbon footprint, zero-emission vehicles will take on more prominent role, starting by electrifying the bus fleet. Creating a pro-worker, pro-rider transition to electric buses will require Congress to act carefully and with a jobs-first approach.
As is the case with most new technologies, BEB companies promise a rose-colored vision of the future. While the promise of cleaner air and environmental protection is essential to our future, policymakers must ensure that the transition to BEBs delivers the same level of service to transit riders without creating large scale job loss.
The current generation of BEBs has demonstrated limitations that will need to be addressed before they can be universally adopted. Agencies with BEBs report buses that quickly lose charge in extreme weather, under-estimated costs of charging stations and other necessary equipment, and many other operational issues.
Today, battery electric buses (BEBs) account for less than 1% of the domestic U.S. bus fleet. Consequentially, the number of mechanics trained to fix these engines is very small. At one major transit agency only 15% of bus mechanics have been trained to use an electrometer – the most basic diagnostic tool for electric engines. Without investments in worker training programs, many of these jobs will be outsourced to lower-paying, lower-quality jobs.
Additionally, electric engines generally require fewer mechanics to maintain than their diesel counterparts. A quick transition to an all-electric fleet runs the risk of putting tens of thousands of workers on the unemployment rolls. Policymakers must ensure that our public transportation agencies have the time and the resources needed to transition their current workforce into the next generation of jobs.
Good, middle class, union jobs and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive. A better trained mechanic fleet in-house should command higher wages while maintaining the good benefits and retirement these jobs are known for. However, to achieve this goal, policymakers cannot ignore the potential problems the transition to electric buses will create without Congressional intervention.
Addressing this issue requires transparency, time, and a mutual commitment between management and the workforce to implement a plan for the transition. Congress must require that all agencies who purchase BEBs:
Create a workforce development plan, with worker input, to ensure all existing workers will be able to remain at the transit agency with the proper training
Inform workers of potential job loss or changes prior to the beginning of the procurement process for BEBs
Negotiate over the terms of implementation for the BEBs with their frontline workforce