The Department of Transportation under the Biden administration recently announced $1.7 billion in federal grants will be awarded to regional transit agencies so that they can improve their local public transportation services. The grants are coming from programs established by Biden’s 2021 Infrastructure Law that are meant for assisting local agencies in expanding and modernizing. 

Nationally, 130 projects were granted sums between a few million to tens of millions of dollars to create more robust transit systems. It is projected that these initiatives will add 1,700 new buses to American streets, with nearly half being zero-emission battery electric or hydrogen fuel-cell powered vehicles. These new buses will represent a 66 percent increase in the number of electric buses driving on American roads since 2021. The other half will be natural gas or hybrid buses, with some agencies wanting a slow transition away from the typical diesel-powered vehicles. The federal government has further pledged that all of the new buses will be manufactured in America.

This is the second series of grants awarded from reserves created by the Infrastructure Law. The legislation funds the Grants for Buses and Bus Facilities and Low- and No-Emission (Low-No) Vehicle programs. From there, agencies and organizations seeking to improve their transportation networks can apply for grants through the two programs. 

So far in 2023, the Buses and Facilities program has allocated a total of $473 million to various transit projects, leaving a little over $1 billion leftover after $550 million was spent in 2022. The Low-No program gave out $1.2 billion worth of grants in fiscal year 2023, after giving out $1.17 billion in 2022. 

The Infrastructure Law funneled $5.5 billion into the Low-No program to help pay for these grants; a record amount that provided more than six times the previous five years of funding. Combined, these two programs have awarded $3.3 billion worth of grants, with $5 billion still set aside to be used through 2026. 

All of these initiatives and grants are a part of the Biden administration’s larger goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. Much of the push for electric vehicles and particularly buses has come from the federal government, with only a few states like California enacting and working towards their own zero-emission goals.

However, there is concern among regional transportation officials that the funding might be moot if ridership levels don’t increase soon. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, transit agencies all around the country have struggled to bounce back to the pre-2020 number of riders. National ridership has only climbed back up to around 65 percent of pre-pandemic levels, and the loss of revenue from the remaining 35 percent lost is hitting agencies hard, with many worried they’ll have to scale back services if things don’t change.

The pandemic changed a lot of aspects of our society, and many of those changes negatively impacted public transportation. More people are working from home, cutting out their commutes on the train or bus. Staffing totals also still haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, making it hard to keep constant and reliable services going, which in turn leads to higher rates of burnout among workers. 

This struggle highlights a bigger issue that American transportation planners consistently face: how might they persuade people not to simply rely on their own cars? Most transit agencies haven’t yet been able to make themselves competitive, further enabling car culture as the dominant mode of transportation in American life. As it stands now, driving in a personal vehicle continues to remain more lucrative than taking public transportation in most of the United States. While transitioning to electric buses will have an impact on reducing carbon emissions, the switch isn’t motivating many people to start taking the bus. The only way to do that is to increase the speed and reliability of public transportation to levels that match or exceed car travel. 

Another worry many agencies have pertains to the lack of the logistical infrastructure that surrounds owning and operating an electric bus. The biggest concern among planners deals with charging. Like most electric vehicles, the electric buses run on a battery that needs to be recharged almost every day that the bus is in commission. Larger fleets of electric buses may not run into issues when it comes to scheduling a charge, but smaller fleets can have a hard time finding a rotation that accommodates for full-day routes.

Building and maintaining chargers is also a daunting task. Bus garages either must be retrofitted or reconstructed to house the large chargers needed to keep the buses powered. Buses that have longer routes throughout the day may not be able to return to a garage to charge when its battery runs out. This could require end-of-line stations to also include charging stations, a task that would now involve public and municipal input about whether or not chargers are wanted on city streets.

Similar to finding enough drivers, hiring enough staff to not just drive, but also charge and maintain these new buses could require new in-depth training. All these cumulate into the problem every new program runs into, the cost of this infrastructure and manpower on top of the buses themselves. This is to say nothing of the new demand for electricity on the local grid to power the buses.

Despite these worries, transit agencies ranging from Washington State to Washington, D.C. are lining up to collect their funds. The D.C. Metro system received $104 million from the programs. In an attempt to remedy worries about bus garages, the Washington Metro system is using their grant money to build a new all-electric bus garage, while also converting three current garages to accommodate for chargers. All of this is to help them achieve their goal of having an entire zero-emission fleet by 2042.

The New Jersey Transit agency has been awarded $47 million, with which it plans to update a bus garage to accommodate for electric buses, the second garage modernization project so far in the state. The state says it will need upwards of $1 billion to update all of its garages in the hopes of having an all zero-emission fleet by the end of 2032. The Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) has been awarded $30 million to replace 31 diesel buses with low or zero-emission ones, as well as providing training to drivers and mechanics for how to work the new buses. 

Overall, the number of diesel-powered buses still dwarf that of alternatively fueled buses, but that’s rapidly changing. With the two federal programs still funded for another three years, expect a massive influx of new electric buses and transit infrastructure coming soon. 


Written by Jake Smith, Public Policy Intern


The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.