The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board agreed Wednesday to buy five hybrid buses next year to replace aging diesel models.
But two of those buses could become electric if the county decides to use about $590,000 of the $7.1 million it received from the BP settlement to fund a charging station for electric buses. If that happens, the PSTA will buy three hybrids and two electrics, which would be used in a pilot program to see if electric buses are the wave of the future.
The board’s decision came after listening to pleas from members of the public — most of them members of the Sierra Club or another environmental group — to buy electric. Many of the speakers urged the board to buy five electrics.
“Please. Think: ‘Go electric,'” said Nancy Frainetti, founder of the Electric Marina. “It’s fabulous.”
The lone dissenting voice during public comment came from Barbara Haselden, who urged board members to buy smaller buses. She objected to the use of BP money to help fund the electric bus pilot, saying it should not be subsidized. The BP money, she said, should go to St. Petersburg.
Two PSTA board members agreed with her. Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers and Brian Scott of Largo, a citizen representative on the board, voted against. Both of them favored buying diesel buses. The other 12 members at the meeting voted for the hybrids.
The vote came after one activist and several PSTA board members harshly criticized CEO Brad Miller for misleading data he had given the board regarding comparative costs of diesels, hybrids and electrics. Miller had recommended the board buy five diesels because they made more fiscal sense in the long run.
But Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch pointed out that, in comparing the effect on gas mileage of the purchase of three hybrids and two electrics, Miller had provided figures for the whole fleet of 200 buses. The effect, Welch said, of five buses would be lost. But, had Miller showed the difference in gas mileage between five diesels and the hybrids group, the difference would have been stark. The diesels would get about 4.6 miles per gallon of fuel. The electrics get about 22 mpg, he said. Those difference work into savings that weren’t reflected in Miller’s figures.
Long said that was a “critical piece” of information she would like to have had.
“This isn’t shown anywhere but in Commissioner Welch’s mind,” she said. “I’m very thankful for his mathematical skills.”
Lucinda Johnston, who spoke during public comment, referred to the lack of data, saying the figures were “incredibly misleading.”
The most scathing comments came from county Commissioner Pat Gerard, who said the PSTA board had discussed electrics and hybrids last year. Board members, she said, gave a clear message that they wanted the PSTA to be more environmentally aware and to do what it could to increase the gas mileage of its fleet. But instead of trying to do what the board wished, she said, Miller seemed opposed.
“I feel like we’ve gotten deliberately misleading information,” Gerard said. “I haven’t heard one word about a way to do this. … I don’t think you made a good-faith effort.”
Gerard said she was leaning toward voting to buy five electric buses and then figuring out a way to make things work out.