A quick update on Los Angeles' plan to electrify its bus fleet: The government has now spent millions of dollars on shoddy, nonfunctional vehicles from a manufacturer that transit officials had a direct financial interest in supporting.
Last year Metro—that's the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs bus and train service in most of Los Angeles County—promised to replace all 2,200 of its natural gas–powered buses with battery-powered vehicles by 2030. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has pledged to purchase only zero-emission buses by 2025.
To achieve these ambitious goals, Metro and other city and county agencies have funneled $330 million in public contracts to BYD, a vehicle manufacturer based in China. An exhaustive Los Angeles Times investigation shows that taxpayers got very little in return for that money: The company produced buses that could not travel the advertised ranges, that stalled on the city's steep hills, that had doors that wouldn't close, and that required far more service calls than the buses they were designed to replace.
The Times also found that some of the officials responsible for awarding grants to BYD owned BYD stock, attended BYD-funded junkets, or received tens of thousands in campaign contributions from BYD.
Take Mike Antonovich, a longtime Los Angeles County supervisor and the chairman of Metro's board. The Los Angeles Times reported that in 2009 and 2010 ethics filings, Antonovich disclosed that he held BYD stock worth less than $10,000.* During that time his wife counseled the company. The stock no longer appeared on disclosures the following year, when Antonovich co-sponsored a $30 million grant for new bus technology. In the following years, he supported initiatives that would directly benefit the company, including a plan to convert the entire Metro fleet to electric vehicles. Antonovich reportedly helped secure a $9.45 million in incentives for BYD to establish a headquarters and manufacturing facility in Los Angeles County.
Also benefitting from BYD's largesse was Len Engel, transit manager for the Antelope Valley Transit Agency. Engel's agency awarded a $72 million contract to BYD to electrify its entire bus fleet in 2016. That same year, the company paid Engel's expenses for week-long trips to China and Ecuador and also hired his sister-in-law for an administrative post.
While has BYD proved to be a deft influence peddler, the Times reveals that it is a less than sterling bus manufacturer. When the first five BYD buses hit Los Angeles' streets in 2015, the vehicles averaged only 59 miles between charges, despite promises they could reach ranges of 155 miles. (Normal Metro buses have a range of about 385 miles before needing to refuel.) The BYD buses also stalled going up hills and required service 10 times more frequently than other Metro buses.
All the problems forced BYD to buy its own buses back from Metro after a couple months on the road in 2016. No BYD buses are currently being operated in the city by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.*
Despite these problems, Los Angeles has continued funneling money toward BYD. Last year the company scored another $47 million contract to provide Metro with 60 buses despite its staff offering negative technical reviews of its bid. That same year the city requested $10 million in grants to buy electric BYD garbage trucks the sanitation agency doesn't even want.
The warped incentives here extend beyond direct payments to officials or their campaigns. By locating its manufacturing facility in Los Angeles County, BYD has been able to argue that the additional money spent on their buses (electric buses cost about twice that of their traditional diesel counterparts) will come back to their community in the form of jobs and tax revenue. The economics of that argument might not pencil out, but the politics of concentrating jobs in an official's district while spreading the cost of those jobs across all taxpayers is tried and true.
Likewise, politicians with higher aspirations may find more political rewards by looking tough on climate change than by running a good bus service. That's particularly true of Garcetti, who is eying a run for president in 2020 and who has raised his national profile by attacking Donald Trump on climate change. When the president announced he was pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords, Garcetti vowed that L.A. would abide by the emission target agreement nevertheless, a move that attracted national headlines.
Garcetti even jetted off to Paris, where he made that pledge to only purchase emission-free vehicles by 2025.
Meanwhile, the local taxpayers one might expect to raise a stink about spending on useless buses have been quieted somewhat by the fact that much of the money for electrifying Los Angeles' bus fleet comes from state and federal grants. Just this past month, for instance, Los Angeles got $36 million in state funds to buy 112 electric buses.
The moral: Public transportation agencies have a lot of goals. Just one of them is transporting people.
*UPDATE and CORRECTION: This story has been updated. The original version of the story incorrectly stated that no BYD buses are currently operating in Los Angeles. The story should have said that the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is not currently operating BYD buses in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Department of Transportation has at least 4 BYD buses on the road, and the Antelope Valley Transit Authority and the City of Gardena, both of which are in Los Angeles County, have some BYD buses, too. Reason did not intend to suggest that BYD engaged in criminal wrongdoing.
The original story was also unclear about the timing of Mike Antonovich's disclosures of BYD stock ownership as reported by the Los Angeles Times. The story has been updated to clarify the timing.