Mitigating the challenges of an aggressive conversion
How CapMetro plans to achieve 100% zero emissions by 2035
By Jeff Hiott, Former Vice President Enterprise Program Management | CapMetro
As transit agencies transition to zero-emission vehicles, some are hesitant to pin a timeline or date of completion to their efforts because of the variables that are out of their control. CapMetro has taken a different approach. We have publicly declared our goals to achieve 100% zero emissions by 2035 and carbon neutrality by 2040.
As part of our mission to provide the Austin community with safe, clean, equitable transportation, we began transitioning our 400-diesel-vehicle fleet to zero-emission vehicles in 2020. We currently have 12 battery electric buses in operation, with up to 197 more BEBs on the way. The procurement was the largest in the nation at the time, but more importantly, it demonstrated to Austin and the country that we are committed to delivering on the goals we promised. The acquisition marks the halfway milestone of our conversion, represents CapMetro’s first non-diesel bus contract and underscores our resolve to procure only zero-emission vehicles from now on. Forty of the new BEBs will operate on our new rapid lines scheduled for revenue service by the end of 2023. The remaining BEBs will replace diesel buses at the end of their service lives.
CapMetro’s rapid implementation pace positions us among the first transit agencies to face some of the challenges associated with transitioning to alternative-power vehicles. Our philosophy has been to confront them head-on, figure them out and move our project forward. We borrowed best practices and lessons learned from transit agencies farther down the path of conversion than CapMetro.
It became apparent that if we intended to mitigate the challenges of an aggressive conversion, we needed to manage the initiative as a program, not project by project. In the past year, CapMetro created a director position for the zero-emission vehicle program. The director will coordinate all the activities required for our zero-emission fleet’s transition, operations and maintenance.
Elevating the conversion to a program gives us visibility across all projects. It allows us to have a broad view of our efforts, prioritize projects, identify risks and determine if their impacts are isolated or far-reaching. Still, the position alone cannot solve all the obstacles between CapMetro and its goal to be a more sustainable corporate citizen. Following are additional proactive mitigation efforts that are keeping our program moving at an accelerated pace:
Internal stakeholder involvement
Transitioning a fleet to zero emissions is an all-departments-on-deck effort. Involving internal stakeholders is necessary for everyone to understand the overall goal and plan appropriately. More importantly, it allows us to identify and discuss the challenges and overcome them together.
Coordination with Austin Energy and the City of Austin
Proactively establishing and maintaining a good relationship with our mission-critical partners is essential to our success. They must understand our vision, needs and timeline, and we must understand their requirements, processes and capabilities.
Our conversations with Austin Energy began early with mutual education and have allowed us to find synergies between our on-route charging plan and their capital plan. The work is challenging. It’s not as simple as stating, “We’re going to put a charger here,” but we are making progress.
Our zero-emissions program supports Austin’s goal of net-zero communitywide greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. We are thrilled to be a part of our growing city’s sustainable future. But with growth comes significant competition for permits. We have made a concerted effort to understand the city’s permitting expectations and requirements, so that our requests are approved the first time we submit them and our projects stay on schedule.
Applying for FTA funding
CapMetro has been fortunate to receive three Low- or No-Emission Vehicle Program awards. The grants have given us the financial ability to purchase the 12 BEBs operating now and the infrastructure necessary to charge them. Federal funding will continue to play a defining role in scaling up the system. In fact, it is not plausible for us to execute the system on an accelerated timeline without the FTA’s assistance. Building a network for BEBs is expensive, and we are taking every opportunity to work with the FTA, even as we evolve our grant application strategy. Instead of applying for every Low- or No- grant advertised, our initial strategy, we are learning to take a more measured, strategic approach. Today, we evaluate all the programs across CapMetro’s system and pursue only those grants that are in our transit agency’s best interest and represent the best use of our limited resources.
Our successful track record is based on presenting a sound transition plan that details all components of the new system, emphasizes how the new zero-emissions fleet will benefit the community and explains our workforce training program. While we may include other program aspects in future applications to address the FTA’s changing criteria, we plan to retain those best practices.
Developing and training the workforce
As we incorporate BEBs into our fleet, we are piloting the buses and the system as well as our workforce’s reaction to the new deployment of service. To avert challenges in this space, we are updating CapMetro’s standard operating procedures and implementing a workforce training plan. Part of our plan involves identifying “training champions” among our technicians who can pass their newfound knowledge and skills to others in their department.
In addition, we hold joint on-site emergency simulations with the fire department, so our operators and mechanics can knowledgeably and safely operate, charge and maintain the buses. Hands-on training will only become more important as we put more BEBs in service. We intend to hold emergency preparedness sessions regularly to ensure the safety of our employees and customers.
Engaging the community
We want our community to feel involved and as excited about the new zero-emission vehicles as we are. In our external communications with them, we explain how the quieter, cleaner vehicles will positively affect their communities and lives. At the same time, we want them to appreciate the amount of planning and work required to stand up a zero-emissions program by explaining how and when we will roll out the fleet and sharing the challenges of bringing battery technology online.
Most importantly, we want our community to know this zero-emissions program is for them, and we are working diligently to bring it online by the date we have identified. Our timeline may be aggressive, but the faster we achieve sustainability, the quicker our community will benefit from it. Ambitious carbon-neutral goals can be realistic when we support them with a sound transition plan, a funding source, external and internal buy-in and a programmatic approach.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vice President Enterprise Program Management
Jeff Hiott oversees performance management, asset management, the zero-emission vehicle program, project portfolio management and new and innovative projects. Before joining CapMetro, he spent 14 years at the American Public Transportation Association, leading its technical services and innovation department.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 247-1331.