Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority officials are hoping to secure a federal grant that would help pay for nine all-electric buses.
The agency is submitting a “lo-no” grant application to the Federal Transit Administration later this week. “Lo-no” stands for low or no emission vehicle.
The grant would also pay for charging stations to support running the buses on two of the county’s smaller routes. Those include Route 32, which serves as the downtown St. Pete circular and Route 11 running from Ulmerton Road south to Greater Pinellas Point.
The downtown loop connects places like Tropicana Field, Bayfront Medical Center, USF St. Petersburg and the Sunshine Senior Center. Route 11 can connect riders to places like PTEC, the Gateway business district where corporate giants Home Shopping Network and Raymond James are located and some of the transit challenged neighborhoods of South St. Pete.
Five of the buses would be “fast charge” meaning the buses would stop for just a couple of minutes on every “loop” through downtown St. Pete to charge. The other four buses are extended range buses. They would be used for the longer Route 11 and would charge every night with occasional quick charges throughout the day at the PSTA main station where the route begins and ends.
The entire project would cost $9.525 million. The federal grant, if awarded, would cover 51 percent of that cost. PSTA would out of pocket $4.65 million. To put that into perspective, it would cost PSTA $4.5 million to purchase nine diesel buses so the federal grant basically pays for an upgrade to all electric.
According to PSTA, the grant process is an extremely competitive one. This is only the second time funds have been available through federal grants. Two years ago ten agencies were awarded grants. During that process about $54 million was available. This year only $22 million is available.
Regardless, agency officials are hopeful their application will be approved. According to Cassandra Borchers, PSTA’s Chief Development Officer, St. Pete serves as a great pilot city for all-electric buses because of its warm climate. Electric buses work on dual cooling systems — one to keep people cool and the other to keep the battery cool.
“Keeping the battery cool extends the battery life, but at the same time it takes energy to do that,” Borchers explained. “So we look at, how do those work in this environment when it gets warm?”
Using quick charge buses on the short downtown St. Pete loop route allows the agency to see how well that system works short-range while the longer route tests how far a bus can go on a single overnight charge. But Route 11 is also short enough to not have problems handling trips in between charges.
“It helps us decide how these technologies work in our area,” Borchers said.
And it’s not just about improving transit.
“We seek to cuts costs and cut pollution. The grants will help PSTA offset the upfront costs while the public benefits from lower emissions and lesser maintenance and operating costs over the lifetime of the bus,” St. Pete City Council member and PSTA board member Darden Rice said.
Borchers called the addition of electric buses “part two of Williams Park” and said it’s something they’d be looking into even without a grant opportunity. Beginning this Valentine’s Day, the long-standing hub system surrounding Williams Park will be dismantled in favor of a grid system.
Instead of all routes coming to and from downtown St. Pete stopping at Williams Park, the routes will land at various stops throughout the area making Williams Park a park again, not just a bus stop, and giving riders more options on where to get on or off the bus.
Enhancing the downtown loop route builds on that by furthering options for riders. The plan has an official letter of support from the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce.
Senator Bill Nelson and U.S. Representatives Gus Bilirakis and David Jolly have also offered support for the project. PSTA is still in the process of soliciting support from Congress member Kathy Castor, Senator Marco Rubio as well as the City of St. Pete, the Sierra Club, Pinellas County MPO and the Pinellas County Commission.