Image by Elvert Barnes licensed under Creative Commons.

DC is about to get a big settlement from Volkswagen, and the money has to go toward electric vehicles. Meanwhile, there are plans to eventually make all of the Circulator buses electric. One great option for putting the windfall to use: spend it on electrifying the buses more quickly.

For several years, Volkswagen installed software in their diesel vehicles that only activated the pollution control system when under inspection by regulators. In real world road conditions, the company's diesel powered cars were exceeding the legal limits of nitrous oxides (NOx) emissions by 15 to 35 times. All that extra NOx translates to a lot more smog, soot, and consequently negative respiratory and cardiovascular health effects for the towns and communities Volkswagen sold their cars to.

The Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission worked on behalf of American citizens and consumers to reach a settlement with Volkswagen totaling up to $14.7 billion, with $2.7 billion earmarked to fund NOx-reducing projects. Even more specifically, the District of Columbia will receive a $7.5 million settlement to electrify our transportation.

This could help us get more electric Circulator buses in DC

For DC, one way to ensure the money has a big environmental impact would be to spend it on battery-electric buses and terminals for our Circulator fleet. Not only would this greatly reduce our city’s carbon emissions, but it would also strengthen DC’s national position as a leader in progressive and effective environmental solutions.

Right now, most of the buses run on diesel, with 18 being diesel-electric. In its updated Transit Development Plan, the District has already committed to spending tens of millions of dollars to expand the Circulator fleet and add additional service in the following five years. The goal is for the fleet to one day be 100% electric, but for now the plan is just to add a few new battery-powered buses.

But the District has yet to earmark the exact expenditures, so the the money from the settlement can help introduce electric buses to the fleet and improve service for transit riders much sooner. The Volkswagen settlement gives DC a perfect opportunity to make sure the new buses run on electricity instead of dirty fossil fuels.

Battery-powered buses are better for the environment, and cheaper in the long run

Battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) present an innovative solution to the threat of climate change and pollution in our communities, and the technology is ready to be introduced to mass transit. Battery-electric buses are better for the environment, cheaper in maintenance and operational costs over their lifespans, and improve the qualify of life for passengers and residents of the neighborhoods surrounding their routes.

Buses that run on diesel are harmful to the environment and human health for the same reasons the Volkswagen vehicles were: they emit pollutants into the air that we all have to share and breathe. Moving to battery-electric buses will reduce our local air pollution and reduce our city’s contribution to climate change by reducing our dependance on fossil fuels. Not to mention that because the engine is electric, the buses run virtually silent. And thanks to the battery, the buses do not require any overhead wires to be installed. This is clearly a solution that even longtime civic and historic preservation groups can happily get behind.

Battery-electric buses are also cheaper over their lifetime. The up-front cost of an electric bus is about twice as much, but they’re cheaper to maintain because they have fewer parts and they don’t require traditional fuel. Diesel buses average about four miles per gallon of fuel but a modern electric bus runs at the equivalent of 22 mpg, a five-fold improvement. They also feature faster acceleration than a diesel bus so they can run more efficiently and offer better service, attracting new passengers and generating more revenue.

If DC does this, it will be an innovator

The District could be an example by completely phasing out the old diesel buses and introducing all-electric battery powered buses for the Circulator. The District is already a leader in green buildings, clean energy, and curbing carbon emissions. By adding electric buses to our sustainability portfolio, we will reach our greenhouse gas reduction goals more quickly and solidify DC’s longstanding leadership in the fight against climate change.

Chicago, Philadelphia, Montréal have already added electric buses to their fleets, and the Antelope Valley Transit Authority will have the nation’s first all-electric bus fleet by the end of 2018.

To ensure that DC remains a climate action leader, Mayor Muriel Bowser and her administration should use the Volkswagen settlement money in the most beneficial manner for our city and our citizens. Shifting economic and environmental realities all but guarantee that the Circulator fleet will eventually switch to 100% battery-electric buses, but it is imperative that we speed up this transition. The money should be spent on purchasing new electric buses and a new emissions-free all-electric bus garage for the fleet to charge at night.

Circulator already has plans to implement all of these changes, and the money from the settlement will help accelerate the process. With members of the DC government starting to take interest in using the settlement money for Circulator electrification, the matter needs public support to cross the finish line.

If you support this idea, you can sign a petition from the Sierra Club.

Tom Huzij is a software engineer from Queens, NY who currently resides in Columbia Heights. He enjoys riding his single-speed bicycle around town, and wishes drivers wouldn't block the bike lane so often. Tom spends his time thinking about complete streets and comparing mass transit systems.