MUNI is planning to begin testing battery-powered buses that don't need overhead electrical lines. (Connor Hunt/ Special to the S.F. Examiner)

Muni planning pilot of battery-powered buses

The City is planning a pilot program to test an unproven transportation technology, battery-powered plug-in electric buses, the San Francisco Examiner has learned.

Though thousands of overhead wires criss-cross The City and power trolley buses, which run poles up to the wires for power, soon that infrastructure may be obsolete — that is, if Muni takes its cues from Tesla. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is scheduled to issue a request for proposals in June for electric buses that can be plugged in, charged up and run on battery power independent of overhead wires, SFMTA Director of Transit John Haley said Tuesday.

Tentatively, nine battery-powered buses will be tested on Muni lines in San Francisco to test their ability to handle heavy loads on steep city hills, Haley said. And just next month, SFMTA will receive new hybrid 40-foot trolley buses, which Haley plans to test with their “poles dropped” for certain segments of the 9-San Bruno or 8-Bayshore routes to see how far and efficiently they run when solely operating on battery power.

“We’re not on the trailing edge of technology,” Haley said, adding the buses would help the SFMTA reach its zero-emissions environmental goals.

But at the SFMTA Board of Directors meeting Tuesday, a group of critics blasted the agency for exactly that. A coalition of environmental and labor groups issued a joint letter to the agency, critiquing them for dragging their feet on introducing battery-run electric buses. Those groups include Earthjustice, GreenAction, Brightline Defense Project, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Asian Neighborhood Design, the Blue Green Alliance and the San Francisco Electrical Construction Industry.

Paul Cort, an attorney at Earthjustice, told the board in public comment that agencies across the United States are adopting battery-only technology in their buses.

”There’s so much activity going on, Muni is in danger of falling behind,” he said.

Emily Heffling, an outreach coordinator at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said “we recognize operational challenges in deploying a hundred percent zero emissions fleet” but argued the technology for battery-electric buses is ready for deployment — even on steep San Francisco hills.

“Last month I rode a 60-foot electric bus from Lancaster to Santa Monica, 150 miles of steep long grade,” she said. “There was only one single charge. That was 50 people, a fully loaded bus. That’s pretty amazing.”

Haley, from the SFMTA, rejected the environmental groups’ claim that Muni isn’t an environmental leader. He said Muni’s fleet is already low-polluting, as it is comprised of biodiesel-electric hybrid buses and on-wire trolley buses. And while the agency has been on a recent bus-buying spree — the newest of which just hit the streets this month — those new buses are built to be easily converted to battery-only technology when it is proven to work well in The City.

“They are made in such a way that it’s 1-2-3 electric, just drop the poles,” Haley said. “I would say the science community should revert back to the scientific method.” Transit

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