Standing in front of a 40-foot electric bus, Gov. Wes Moore asked the crowd gathered inside the Kirk Street Depot to take a deep breath. The hum of an industrial fan some 50 yards away and camera shutter clicks filled the silence.

“That’s the power of this progress — the fact that we are standing right in front of an active bus and we hear nothing. The fact that we’re standing right toward the tail end of an active bus, and we smell nothing,” Moore said.

Moore joined Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld and other officials Tuesday afternoon at the MTA facility in Baltimore to celebrate the launch of the agency’s first fully electric buses.

A group of people wearing suits stand in front of a blue and white bus that reads "zero emissions bus" on the side. They are holding large scissors with gold handles they used to cut a blue ribbon.
Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld and Gov. Wes Moore cut the ribbon alongside other officials on seven fully electric buses entering the Maryland Transit Administration's bus fleet at the Kirk Street bus depot on Feb. 27, 2024. (Daniel Zawodny/The Baltimore Banner)

The seven New Flyer buses join roughly 800 diesel-powered buses and have already begun carrying passengers, primarily along Baltimore CityLink’s Red and Green lines, said MTA Administrator Holly Arnold.

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Moore said the milestone reflects his administration’s ambitious climate agenda — which aims for a 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions statewide by 2031 and net-zero emissions by 2045. He also touted the positive impact of clean vehicles on Baltimore communities.

“These seven buses are just the start,” said the governor, a former Baltimore resident.

The launch marks the first major step of the MTA’s pilot electric bus program. The agency hopes to eventually electrify its entire bus fleet.

Maryland Secretary of the Environment Serena McIlwain called the launch a critical step in helping the state reach its climate goals.

Driven largely by emissions from private automobiles, the transportation sector now outpaces the power sector as the state’s single largest greenhouse gas polluter, accounting for roughly 35% of emissions. The state transportation agency’s plan to reach net zero emissions largely hinges on increasing the affordability of electric vehicles and the accessibility of charging stations. But getting more cars and trucks off the road by encouraging more transit use also plays a role.

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“This is not really just about transportation, though; it’s about building a better future for generations to come and cleaning the air around us,” McIlwain said.

A woman stands in front of a brown podium and speaks into a microphone. There is a blue and white bus in the background with a bright LED sign that reads, "let's clean the air."
Serena McIlwain, Maryland's secretary of the environment, delivers remarks at the Maryland Transit Administration's Kirk Street bus depot on Feb. 27, 2024, to mark the launch of seven fully electric buses into the MTA fleet. (Daniel Zawodny)

“Climate change is real — it’s happening faster than most of us predicted. While transit is the greenest mode of travel, we can do even more at this point to reduce the impact on the warming climate,” said Terry Crews, regional administrator for the Federal Transit Administration. Crews applauded the MTA’s allocation of funds for workforce development so that workers can be “part of the transition” toward electrification, too.

Fleet electrification will create new MTA jobs for battery maintenance and charger management, said Falco Benfield, the MTA’s director for zero emissions bus operations. The agency will use the 18-month pilot program to collect data with the seven new buses that can inform future decisions about what kinds of batteries and chargers to buy as well as operations decisions.

Four of the new buses are 40-footers that can hold roughly 45 people and log up to 150 miles on a single charge, thanks to 42 different onboard batteries. Three new buses are 60-footers that can carry closer to 60 passengers and get up to 130 miles on a single charge.

A slowed transition

The MTA is in the midst of outfitting two of its four bus depots with utility upgrades and charging infrastructure to handle about 200 electric buses by 2028, according to state DOT planning documents.

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R. Earl Lewis Jr., the MTA’s director for zero emission bus infrastructure, called the Kirk Street depot — the site of Tuesday’s announcement — ”ground zero” for fleet electrification.

Similar infrastructure upgrades for the remaining two depots, including the Bush Street division next to Carroll Park, will take longer to implement, according to Arnold. Home to roughly half of the MTA’s bus fleet, the Bush Street division is the largest in the system and poses additional challenges as a historic property.

A woman standing at a brown podium claps her hands. A blue and white bus is in the background.
Maryland Transit Administrator Holly Arnold celebrates the addition of seven fully electric buses into the MTA fleet at her agency's Kirk Street bus depot on Feb. 27, 2024. (Daniel Zawodny)

The Maryland Zero Emission Bus Transition Act, passed in 2021, has prohibited the MTA from making additional purchases of non-electric buses since mid-2022. Arnold told The Baltimore Banner that her agency will need to request relief from that law in the short term due to budget constraints and supplier issues.

Last December, MDOT announced roughly $3.3 billion in proposed cuts to its six-year transportation plan, including delayed projects and cuts to commuter bus service and road maintenance. Officials cited rising costs and declining revenues that were choking the state’s Transportation Trust Fund.

The proposed cuts include a nearly $600 million hit to the MTA that will delay the agency’s electric bus transition. In January, Moore announced a one-time cash infusion of $150 million to shore up MDOT through the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2025.

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Arnolds anticipates that the agency’s next bus contract will seek 20 electric buses, costing roughly $1.2 million each, and 50 clean diesel buses, which run closer to $800,000. With fewer moving parts, Arnold and her team expect the electric buses to cost roughly 30% less than diesel-powered buses to maintain.

Benfield hopes that electric bus manufacturing follows a similar trend to personal electric vehicles, which have gotten more accessible over time as technology has improved and more models have been released. But a reduction in suppliers, such as Novabus, which decided to leave the U.S. market, could undercut that trend.

Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for the The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America. He is a Baltimore area native and graduated with his master's degree in journalism from American University in 2021. He is bilingual in English and Spanish and previously covered immigration issues.

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