DC community activists win electric bus fleet in Ward 4

A close up shot of a white DC MetroBus

Francisco Orantes/Unsplash

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Climate, Justice, Policy, Public Health, Transportation

By Sophie Kahler and Zoe Swiss

Taalib-Din Uqdah never expected to be an environmental activist — not in his wildest dreams. He was the kid who loved going to gas stations just to “stick my head out the back of the window and smell the gasoline.”

Nowadays, Uqdah is no fan of petrol — especially in public transit. The 70-year-old business owner, community activist, and Washington, D.C., native is spearheading efforts to overhaul the renovation of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) Northern Bus Garage in Ward 4 of the city. In January, those efforts paid off when WMATA announced that the Northern Bus Garage will reopen with an all-electric bus fleet in 2027 — the first entirely electric, zero-emission garage in the city.

The commitment to an all-electric bus fleet represents a culmination of years of advocacy and community organizing. When WMATA announced the renovation in 2018, the agency’s fleet management plan included buses running on compressed natural gas, standard diesel, “clean diesel” and hybrid fuels.
WMATA considered all but standard diesel to be “clean fuel,” but even hybrid fuels contribute to the climate crisis. Battery-powered electric buses provide more sustainable benefits by eliminating the use of fossil fuels, improving air quality, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and lowering noise pollution.

The bus renovation debate

Located on a large lot between D.C.’s Sixteenth Street Heights and Petworth neighborhoods, the Northern Bus Garage — also known as the Northern Bus Barn — is surrounded by residential homes and retail businesses on 14th Street. The facility has been operational since 1906, first as a barn for electric streetcars and later for traditional buses.

By 2018, the bus garage was in need of repair. Rather than locate a new lot, WMATA chose to renovate the garage for convenience and proximity to a high ridership corridor. They planned to demolish everything but the garage’s historic facade on 14th Street and construct a mixed-use development to house over 200 buses and about 50,000 square feet of space for commercial space. The garage was set to include infrastructure for 175 electric buses — but WMATA didn’t have these buses, or any plan to make the switch to electric.

Many community members weren’t sold on the plan. Some wanted the bus garage gone completely. Some wanted it redeveloped into a grocery store or affordable housing. Others wanted it to house electric buses. Residents living near the garage brought up noise pollution and health concerns, such as asthma, which they say trace back to the diesel fumes of the buses.

Uqdah, who has lived near the bus garage since 1984, immediately took interest in the project. He saw it as an important factor in the community’s quality of life, and he created the Northern Bus Barn Neighbors to organize community members against WMATA’s plan to bring gas and diesel buses back to the garage. Red signs began popping up in residents’ yards proclaiming, “NO! BUS DIESEL FUMES”

A man holds a red sign that says "NO! BUS DIESEL FUMES" outside of a brick building surrounded by wiring fencing.
Taalib-Din Uqdah holds his Northern Bus Barn Neighbors sign outside the garage. (Zoe Swiss)

Diesel in the air

Uqdah was especially concerned about diesel particulate matter, a part of exhaust that contains gas and soot particles, and nitrogen oxide emissions from diesel-powered vehicles. Air pollution from diesel exhaust has long been linked to adverse health effects including asthma, neuroinflammation, cardiovascular disease and lung cancer, even in particle-filtered exhaust. In 2012, the World Health Organization classified diesel engine exhaust as “carcinogenic to humans” for causing an increased risk of lung cancer.

New research shows that exposure to diesel exhaust for even brief periods of time may cause cognitive impairment as well by disrupting the connectivity between brain regions.

And the impacts of air pollution disproportionately affect minority communities. In D.C. — which the American Lung Association gave a “C” rating for particle pollution last year — Black residents are 126% more likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer than white residents as of 2021. 

Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George cited this disparity in her remarks at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Northern Bus Garage in January.

“When we talk about reducing diesel fumes in our neighborhoods, we know that it is both an environmental justice issue and a racial justice issue,” the Councilmember said. In Ward 4, the area Lewis George represents, about 45% of the population is Black.

Uqdah and other community members have expressed their views in public meetings with WMATA since 2019, with nearly 100 people sending messages to the WMATA board about bus electrification at one meeting in October of 2020. Many of those messages urged WMATA not to reopen the garage unless the bus fleet would be fully electrified, often noting health concerns.

“I live in this neighborhood. My children have asthma. Adding more diesel buses is a huge threat to our health and the environmental pollution is a terrible, terrible thing,” said resident Blythe Emigholz of Sixteenth Street Heights. 

“We are very concerned. We’ve been making our voices clear at meetings, but it seems like there’s no response to the environmental concerns that have been voiced by these neighbors.”

Construction trailers and fencing line the perimeter of the bus garage on Arkansas and Buchanan streets NW. (Zoe Swiss)

A greener future

Councilmember Lewis George became involved in the advocacy as she was knocking doors on the 2020 campaign trail, hearing similar stories from countless Ward 4 residents. Once elected, she began pushing for bus electrification on the D.C. City Council.

WMATA got on board in June 2021, approving a plan to shift to a zero-emission electric bus fleet over the next 20 years. Their aim was to replace the existing gas and diesel buses by 2045 in accordance with the 2018 Clean Energy D.C. Act – the Northern Bus Garage was set to house 150 of these electric buses. It was a step in the right direction, but many in the community were not satisfied with the far-off date. 

“Two and a half decades is far too long to wait for public transit that aligns with our region’s sustainability goals and the urgent reality of climate change,” said Lewis George.

City officials and community members continued negotiating, and in January 2023, WMATA announced that the Northern Bus Garage fleet would be entirely electric by 2027 — 18 years sooner than the initial date. The garage will feature rooftop solar panels that are expected to generate 726,000 kWh/year, electric vehicle charging stations for parking, and a LEED Platinum rating.

At the groundbreaking ceremony on January 25, Councilmember Lewis George acknowledged the efforts of community activists like Uqdah and thanked them for pushing the initiative through. 

“An all zero-emission bus garage is a monumental step towards a sustainable future as we confront the urgent reality of climate change in our city, in our country, and across the world,” said Lewis George. 

“This Northern Bus Barn will make WMATA, as it always has been, and DC, as it always has been… a national leader in providing green public transit that does right by our communities and by our planet.”

The electrification of the bus garage is just one piece in a community revitalization project that Uqdah hopes will bring more business and affordable housing to the Sixteenth Street Heights and Ward 4 communities.

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