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Ken Welch is “fairly optimistic” electric buses will be in St. Pete next year

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Ken Welch

Members of the board that oversees Pinellas’ bus system are split when it comes to deciding what kind of buses to buy.

Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority CEO Brad Miller has proposed buying five new buses to replace worn out buses in the system’s fleet. The five buses would be the first of 70 buses the PSTA plans to buy over the next five years.

Under Miller’s proposal, the five new buses would be diesel unless funding is found to install charging stations. In that case, Miller is proposing that three of the buses would be diesel, and two would be electric.

The proposal won the approval of the PSTA finance committee on Wednesday. But, the PSTA planning committee, which also met Wednesday, nixed the idea. Members there said the new buses should be hybrids and, if funding is found for charging stations, then the PSTA should buy three hybrids and two electrics.

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who serves on the planning committee, said his group was concerned about the emissions from diesel buses. Hybrids, he said, have fewer emissions and that, for a county that’s facing the rise of sea water and other challenges from climate change, should be a major factor in decision making. That’s also one of the reasons electric buses are on the agenda.

“I think the electric makes a lot of sense,” Welch said. “I really think that’s the future of PSTA.”

One factor barring the purchase of electric buses is the cost of installing charging stations for the buses. Welch has suggested the county take about $590,000 from the $7.1 million it received from the settlement from the BP oil spill and use it to buy and install the chargers. Welch said he believes he has support from other county commissioners to do that.

“I’m fairly optimistic that’s going to happen,” Welch said. “I’ve also reached out to Duke Energy” to provide funding or other help in getting electric buses on the roads.

If the charging stations can be built, he said, St. Pete will be the test ground for electric buses.

That’s good news for Phil Compton, a senior organizing representative for the Sierra Club Florida’s Healthy Air Campaign. The Sierra Club Florida is a member of the Tampa Bay Zero Emission Coalition, which is advocating the purchase of electric buses for a test to see how they work in Pinellas. The group has been urging people to tell the PSTA to switch to electric buses.

“This is a zero emission vehicle,” Compton said. Not only will they help the atmosphere, he said, they’ll also help with noise pollution because they make no noise.

Barbara Haselden, a St. Petersburg civic activist, is less sure about electric buses. Haselden sees the electric buses as expensive. They’re using technology, she said, that’s evolving and uncertain. She also objected to the BP money being used for such a project.

“I don’t think that’s right,” Haselden said.

Haselden has been circulating a petition on change.org that’s headlined “Tell PSTA to purchase smaller buses and not electric 40 footers.” Those buses, she said, would be diesel. Diesel gas has improved in the past few years and is not the pollutant it once was. Haselden said she’s gotten about 150 signatures on the change.org site and another 100 on the petitions she’s personally circulated.

She explains on change.org: “We all know how often we see these huge buses nearly empty around our county and now seems like a great time to identify underperforming routes and find the most reliable smaller vehicles on the market to purchase and use on these routes. … In conclusion, on the core routes with high ridership please replace the old 40 foot buses with new efficient 40 foot diesels as recommended by CEO Brad Miller to the Board, and purchase the smaller buses on the other routes with less ridership in this bus replacement purchase that is upcoming and as a matter of future policy until all but the core routes, roughly seven out of 40 in the network, are fitted with the appropriate smaller size vehicle to meet the demand for service.”

Welch said the PSTA had been buying smaller buses for routes in the northern portion of Pinellas.

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