The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) system is the major transit authority in Atlanta. MARTA’s multimodal bus and rail model has grown and evolved since its inception in 1965 to now provide 48 miles of rail and 740 bus stops. The company drives $1.4 billion of economic activity annually. While MARTA’s rail systems are electric-powered, the buses have historically been powered by diesel (and more recently by compressed natural gas). The electric bus transition has taken a lot of time and a lot of work, but as of 2023, MARTA has quite the success story regarding electrification, and it is only growing from here.
Anecdotally, MARTA employees were not ready to be first adopters of electric bus technology. First adopters, while taking on the huge task of paving the way for many others to follow, often struggle with procurement and operational hurdles. MARTA preferred to wait for first adopters to knowledge share about the lessons learned in other cities and fleets before adopting their own e-bus fleet. A federal grant application in 2019 allowed MARTA to work with various stakeholders to successfully procure electric buses and their charging infrastructure. The entire process took just over two years, as some delays were incurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Additional delays have been caused by a general lack of understanding of the new technologies and processes needed to be put in place for this new technology. For example, the transformer needed for a depot charging facility has a lead time of over a year. Federal Transit Authority (FTA) requirements have also become more detailed as this technology has evolved, and operations and environmental hazards analyses are now required to onboard new buses, further complicating the process.
With that said, once the process was learned, MARTA was able to successfully implement its first mini-fleet of six e-buses. Post-procurement, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have field service representatives in Atlanta, and MARTA purchases many hours of training when it buys buses. To date, this has been a challenge; increasing the comfort level of operators and maintenance technicians is difficult. While MARTA’s rail technicians routinely work with electric currents, they are accustomed to the vehicles not being powered (removed from the tracks) when working on them. In exchange, with electric buses, the battery is always in the vehicle, requiring a different type of technological expertise.
Outputs & Outcomes
Outputs: As of August 2023, MARTA currently operates six electric buses. The 40-ft buses all run the same fixed route in order to gauge effectiveness. While the buses are not fully operational to date due to charging infrastructure limitations, MARTA plans to expand its fleet in a systematic way over the next 10+ years.
MARTA is currently wrapping up a new contract for an estimated 60-80 buses. 25% of MARTA’s bus fleet will be electric by 2030. Additionally, Atlanta’s first Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system will go into service in 2025. The fleet will be comprised of 60-ft battery-electric buses.
Outside of the transit vehicles themselves, MARTA also operates a non-revenue fleet. These vehicles are used for business purposes and have also begun the transition to electric. There are currently 15 plug-in hybrids. The same goal of 25% electric by 2030 is also in place for this fleet. Four electric cargo vans and four electric passenger trucks will be added next year, followed by an additional 16 per year through 2030.
MARTA owns 2 portable bus chargers (electric 50kwh shop chargers) to be used in case of emergencies. The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) and Georgia Power will be installing more permanent chargers for both buses and passenger vehicles at MARTA’s facilities as time goes on; they already have some for customers and are planning more. As a longstanding member of Clean Cities Georgia, MARTA collaborates with the coalition staff and its network as they continue along this journey.
Outcomes: Through the hard work of this fleet transition, MARTA is now able to serve some of their customers with zero-emission vehicles instead of low-emission CNG vehicles, and will continue to expand this fleet in the coming years.
Best Practices & Lessons Learned
E-bus chargers and batteries are reliable. Any changes in vehicle range are most likely due to driving practices. To combat this, MARTA has implemented a drivers’ coaching system with LED lights to tell them how they’re doing. If they’re harshly accelerating or decelerating, the vehicle will warn them. Over time, good driving practices become habit.
For electric vehicles, there is less maintenance but the same frequency of inspections. These inspections are paramount to the public safety of MARTA’s riders. It is a challenge for maintenance managers to be able to confirm the maintenance has been done correctly. There are no parts or fluids to change; instead, visual inspections of cabling and components, verification of torque for various connections, and a check for battery coolant leaks are necessary. Because of the difficulty in confirming this type of maintenance, different verification methods have needed to be implemented. For example, some managers are now requiring photographs to verify inspections.
In 1996, MARTA began transitioning its buses to CNG in preparation for the 1996 Olympics. This was a huge undertaking. A lot of misconceptions circulated about this technology and many people were skeptical. Today, the fleet is 75% CNG and all the misconceptions have been laid to rest. MARTA employees rest assured that while many challenges have arisen during this new electric transition, if we were to come back to this success story in 10 years, the same story will have played out with electric. While it may not be a total success yet, it will be. There are a lot of small steps necessary in order to take the big leap.