Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s long-time mission to electrify the city’s buses is turning into a massive waste of time that could further disrupt the West Coast Democrat’s hopes of running for president in 2020.
The city began buying a lot of buses in 2008 from a Chinese battery manufacturer called BYD Ltd., which promised to create thousands of new green energy jobs and provide L.A. buses with long-range use that could clean up the environment. The promise became an expensive flop, according to a report published Wednesday in the Los Angeles Times.
BYD’s buses stalled on hills, required frequent service calls and had unpredictable driving ranges below advertised distances, which were impaired by temperature changes and the driver’s braking. In fact, the first five buses BYD sent to LA Metro, which manages the city’s public transportation, were pulled off the road after less than five months of service.
Metro staff called them “unsuitable,” poorly made and unreliable for over 100 miles, internal city emails show. The transit agency awarded BYD tens of millions of dollars more in public contracts despite concerns the buses were becoming a headache and perhaps not worth the expense.
But Garcetti, a Democrat and proponent of electric vehicles who chairs Metro’s board, often tossed lifelines to BYD as the company lobbied its way into the city’s pocketbook.
The mayor invited BYD in 2016 to test new product lines within city agencies and arranged for officials to visit the company’s factory. Records show two city departments gave BYD contracts without competitive bidding. When the projects hit snags, city managers told staff the purchases were “political,” the LA Times reported.
Garcetti led an effort to force Metro to convert its 2,200-bus fleet to electric despite the poor results with BYD. He and his staff wrote policy motions and created a private meeting between Metro executives and environmental lobbyists, the LA Times reported.
BYD rolled out its first five buses for an Earth Day ceremony in 2015 outside LA’s Metro headquarters. They were quietly sent back to the factory shortly thereafter, according to the LA Times.
Internal Metro reports show the buses needed “extensive campaign of retrofits, modifications and upgrades to correct irregularities.” Problems only metastasized, internal metro logs show. (
Metro records show the buses never traveled further than 133 miles, although BYD promised the units had a range of 175 miles. Reports also show drivers got an average of 59 miles between charges when service stops were factored in. Other cities had problems with the buses, too.
Officials in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for instance, were so alarmed with production problems and severe range shortfalls that they raised concerns about its $23-million contract. “The whole thing is a bit of a lemon, and now we’ve got to learn to make lemonade,” said Mayor Tim Keller.
Garcetti did not agree to an interview with the LA Times, but his staff said in a press statement that the mayor’s office has met with BYD representatives in the past. “To be clear, access in the form of meetings and conversations does not equal business,” the statement said. A beleaguered electric bus fleet is not the only problem the mayor must wrestle with before moving on to higher office.
Garcetti is also scratching and clawing for solutions to L.A.’s unsheltered homeless problem. Analysts argue the city’s ever-increasing number of transient citizens could cost him if he runs for higher office.
“If there’s any hope of running for president, that’s the problem he has to fix,” Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a public policy professor at the University of Southern California, told the Los Angeles Times in May. “It taints his legacy as mayor, and it’s also a risk if he wants to move up.”
Garcetti, who has made no bones about his plans to take on President Donald Trump, aims to get half of the city’s more than 25,000 homeless people into shelters before the end of his term. He has traveled across the country, talking jobs and infrastructure, while drawing a distinction between himself and Trump.