Santa Cruz City Councilmember and Metro Board Chair Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson kicks off Monday's funding announcment.
(Max Chun / Lookout Santa Cruz)
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Metro gets $20 million in federal funds for Watsonville buses as part of largest zero-emission transit purchase in the U.S.

Santa Cruz Metro received more than $20 million in federal grant funding on Monday to further the organization’s efforts to convert its bus fleet to zero-emission vehicles. Metro plans to purchase 54 hydrogen fuel cell-powered buses with this money combined with funding secured in April.

Federal officials awarded Santa Cruz Metro $20.4 million Monday to expand its fleet of zero-emission public transit vehicles as part of what the agency said was one of the largest purchases of fuel cell-powered buses in the country.

The grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation will allow the regional Metropolitan Transit District to convert all of its buses now serving Watsonville to zero-emission vehicles by 2027. The agency plans to replace 12 buses powered by diesel and natural gas with buses powered by hydrogen fuel cell electricity. Metro purchased four battery-powered buses in 2019, which it rolled out on a Watsonville route in 2021.

The Watsonville funding comes about two months after the California State Transportation Agency awarded Metro $38.6 million to help pay for 24 zero-emission, hydrogen-fueled buses, along with other transit and housing projects.

Metro is in the midst of transitioning its 94-bus fleet away from diesel and natural gas toward zero-emission technology such as batteries and hydrogen fuel cell electricity. Metro plans to purchase a total 54 hydrogen fuel cell-powered buses by 2027.

U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who attended Monday’s funding announcement at the Watsonville Transit Center, described Santa Cruz County’s clean-bus procurement as “the largest acquisition of clean buses in the entire United States.”

Lofgren added that the grant will provide funding for workforce development and training to help the district’s employees to operate and perform maintenance on the clean energy buses.

U.S. Representative Zoe Lofgren addresses the crowd on Monday morning.
(Max Chun / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“With every grant, we want to make sure not only are we providing for clean buses, but also so that the workforce can be trained to do the specialized work that we ask them to do,” she said. “This grant does all of that.”

U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta said that this grant is one of just nine awarded in California.

While Monday’s announcement didn’t include any funding for transit-oriented housing, the state funding in April included money to push the 120-unit Pacific Station North redevelopment project in downtown Santa Cruz toward completion, and provide the 60-unit Watsonville Transit Center project with money needed to complete the new Metro station.

Both of the development projects tie transit and housing access together, which transportation experts say is vital to achieving equitable housing and getting cars off the road.

The Watsonville Transit Center.
(Max Chun / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Metro CEO Michael Tree told Lookout earlier this year that his agency has partnered with MidPen Housing to build an additional three floors of affordable housing on top of the Watsonville Transit Center. The bottom floor of the run-down building is expected to be renovated and turned into a lobby for Metro customers and community services.

“Now that it’s got funding, it will go into final design, and I would view it as maybe 24-36 months until we can stick a shovel in the ground,” Tree told Lookout in May.

The project is not fully funded yet. Tree said that the project needs about $25 million more to push the 60 units of housing across the finish line, which will require a number of grants from state and local agencies. That said, Tree doesn’t think securing that funding will be a struggle.

“Because [the project] is in a disadvantaged community, and at a transit center, I imagine those grants are not going to be a stretch,” he told Lookout on Monday, adding that Metro has already applied for the local grant. “That money is going to flow.”