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How PSTA learned to stop worrying and love the hybrid

in The Bay and the 'Burg by

Seven new hybrid diesel-electric buses will be cruising around Pinellas County next year.

PSTA board members approved the purchase — which will cost the PSTA no more than $4.9 million — at their Oct. 28 meeting. It falls under the board’s long-term bus replacement strategy, which aims to replace 13 old buses per year with newer, more fiscally and environmentally sound buses.

However, the decision for board members wasn’t an easy one.

After holding off on the vote for two months, the 15-member board took upwards of three hours to discuss the measure, hear public opinion, examine PSTA staff information, and have a vote. Eight board members supported the hybrid bus purchase, while the remaining seven — board members Samantha Fenger, Joseph Barkley, Patricia Johnson, Darden Rice, Brian Scott, Ben Diamond and Dave Eggers opposed.

“We have an awful lot of information that’s coming together so quickly,” said Eggers, who also serves on Pinellas County Commission. “It’s clear to me […] that more time for people to process it and feel comfortable with it is the right thing to do.”

Eggers was referring to the various bus options the board had to choose from.

PSTA staff recommended the board purchase the seven hybrid buses which were ultimately decided on; PSTA’s finance committee recommended purchasing nine diesel buses; and the Sierra Club, a national environmental organization dedicated to “enjoying, exploring and protecting the planet,” wanted an all-electric bus purchase.

“Sierra Club supports the adoption of electric vehicle technology wherever it proves practical and affordable,” said Phil Compton, a senior organizing representative with Sierra Club, whose members — who have been very vocal about their desire for an all-electric bus purchase — turned out in very high numbers for yesterday’s vote.

And while all members of the PSTA board were in favor of a future all-electric bus purchase, none felt strongly enough to support the measure this time around.

“I do not feel that the electric technology is mature enough,” said Scott, a citizen appointee of the board’s who also owns ESCOT Bus Lines, a charter bus service based out of Pinellas County. “I think PSTA is far better off letting somebody else’s tax payers buy these busses and refine this technology and have PSTA buy-in at a point in the future. I think we’re jumping the gun on this technology. I just don’t think it’s ready for prime time.”

PSTA staff and its CEO, Brad Miller, agreed with Scott about the technology not being quite ready to invest in. They contended that it would be too expensive, take too much infrastructure work — such as constructing charging stations and figuring out which routes were short enough to accommodate electric buses — and take too long (around three years) for the busses to be delivered, assessed and put on the roads.

Scott, the board’s only proponent of the finance committee’s recommendation to purchase nine new clean-burning diesel buses at a cost not to exceed $4.5 million, like many on the board who voted both for and against the hybrid purchase, was most concerned with getting the PSTA bus fleet’s oldest people-carriers off the road.

According to the PSTA, those old buses — 2001 series buses — are costing about $20,000 per bus, per year in maintenance costs. They’re also the fleet’s biggest polluters.

Pinellas County Commissioner and PSTA board member Ken Welch, while disagreeing with Scott on the diesel bus purchase, also felt the old buses needed to come off the road. Welch, however, was thinking big picture repercussions — like climate change and sea level rise, as greenhouse gases released from diesel burning engines contribute to both.

“Every government up here, if you add it all together, will be spending billions to deal with this [sea level rise] over [the course] of our lifetime and [the lifetime of] those who will inherit our community,” said Welch.

He went on to cite the Tampa Bay Climate Science Advisory Panel’s projections for sea level rise in the area: “its a foot to 6.9 feet by [the year] 2100,” Welch continued.

Welch, while vocal about wanting electric buses, voted in favor of the hybrid bus purchase, citing the electric buses’ potential for unreliability.

“When we put a bus on the road,” said Welch, “it has to be dependable, and that’s why I can’t support going electric today — we haven’t tested it.”

The push for electric buses in Pinellas is nowhere near over though. Part of the PSTA’s hybrid bus purchase approval authorized the board to apply for a “Lo-No” (low-to-no emissions) federal grant. The grant, if received, will pay for multiple electric buses — and their charging stations.

Although, receiving that grant money is far from a sure thing.

“I’m a grant writer by trade,” said Pinellas County Commissioner and PSTA board member Pat Gerard. “I can guarantee you that if we are not showing a commitment to sustainability, we can loose one or two points on that grant, and that’ll be the difference. It’s extremely competitive. There’s only going to be a handful of grants in the whole county. We’ll be extremely lucky if we get it.”

Once the PSTA’s new buses arrive — Gillig BAE series hybrid electric transmission buses which use even less diesel than the PSTA’s current hybrid buses, as fuel in the BAE series only goes toward charging the electric battery, as opposed to working with the electric battery to actually propel the bus, as the PSTA’s existing hybrids do — the PSTA’s hybrid fleet will number 68. That makes up about a third of the county’s entire bus fleet, which is already the most robust hybrid public bus fleet in the state.

Funding for the purchase stems from the PSTA’s capital improvement program, which allows for the use of $3.5 million in federal grant funds to purchase seven replacement buses. To account for the extra $1.3 million it will cost for the hybrids, the PSTA will be drawing from its capital reserves.

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Devon Crumpacker is a Tampa Bay based writer and reporter for Extensive Enterprises Media. He primarily covers Pinellas County politics for SaintPetersblog.com, but also makes time to write the occasional bar review for FloridaBarTab.com. He lives in St. Petersburg with his fiance, Sydney. To contact, e-mail devon@floridapolitics.com, or visit his Twitter page @DevonCrumpacker.

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