Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Pinellas Moves Forward To Add New Zero Emission Electric Buses to Fleet

Victory! Members of the Tampa Bay Zero Emissions Coalition celebrate today's victory as
PSTA moves forward to add its 1st zero emission electric buses to its fleet of diesel and diesel hybrid buses. 
Now it's up to YOU to take the next step: Fill out Pinellas County's survey on how to spend its BP $$. Details below

(St. Petersburg) As dozens of supporters of electric buses looked on, the Board of Directors of PSTA today voted by a 12-2 margin to acquire its first ever zero emission electric buses - IF the Pinellas County Commission votes to allocate funds to PSTA for an on route charging system. 

What you can do now to get electric buses in Pinellas: Go to the Pinellas County BP survey today and ask for funding for electric bus charging infrastructure. Note that it meets the County’s top priority for allocation of BP funds, transportation, and that it also qualifies under the criteria of an innovative pilot program. What better way to use these funds, provided to the county as recompense for the economic damage done by the 2010 BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, than to provide the essential basis for the county’s transit system that show the community and its millions of visitors, in a very visible way, that we are moving away from our vulnerability to the oil industry, by switching to transportation that will never need any oil? Please act today - the deadline for online comments is Thursday, June 30. 

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board also directed staff to immediately issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) for electric buses, and to include in the RFP the stipulation that applicants include an option for the lease of the battery (about 1/3 of the total cost of an electric bus). 

The RFP for electric buses came at the recommendation of members of the Tampa Bay Zero Emission Coalition, a Pinellas based group of 39 businesses, neighborhood associations, churches and non-profit organizations, which urged PSTA to start making the switch to electric buses in earnest by considering bus purchases in as thorough and serious a manner as it does the purchase of any type of equipment or service.  PSTA CEO Brad Miller told the board that he would get busy working on the RFP “as soon as this meeting adjourns”. 

In voting to start making the switch to electric, the board rejected staff’s recommendation that they purchase its first diesel buses since adopting a policy on sustainability that has resulted in the agency exclusively buying the cleanest running buses previously available, diesel hybrids, for the past 8 years. The board soundly rejected the Finance and Performance Committee’s recommendation to buy three new diesel and 2 electric buses, preferring County Commissioner Ken Welch’s Planning Committee recommendation to the board to instead buy 3 diesel hybrid and 2 electric buses.

The purpose of leasing the electric bus battery to is to shift about 1/3 of the capital expense of this type of bus from PSTA's limited capital funds to operating expenses, the area where electric buses save transit agencies hundreds of thousands of dollars over the life of a bus, due to their drastically reduced fuel and maintenance expense. The Tampa Bay Zero Emission Coalition recommended that PSTA buy 5 electric buses, as it is likely that the RFP with a battery lease option will clearly show that PSTA can, in fact, better afford electric buses than either diesel or diesel hybrid. 

The purchase of any electric buses is still contingent upon allocation of BP settlement funds by Pinellas County to PSTA for the express purpose of covering the cost of an on route quick charging system that would enable as many as nine electric buses to serve various routes in the same general area. Downtown St. Petersburg was identified by PSTA staff as the most feasible location to initiate zero emission electric bus service. Many on the board as well as citizens commented on the benefits to both riders and residents of the downtown area. Rebecca Falkenberry, owner of a townhouse in downtown St. Petersburg that PSTA diesel buses now drive past, told how she is now forced to spend $10,000 to soundproof her windows that she now must keep closed at all times to keep out noise and toxic diesel soot, issues that would both be completely eliminated by electric buses. 

PSTA’s vote means that, should the County Commission allocate funds for a one time purchase of electric charging infrastructure, PSTA will acquire its first two electric buses and put them in service by next year. Moreover, such an allocation would make it possible to acquire as many as seven additional electric buses that would all use the same charging system. The Pinellas County Commission is taking comments through June 30 via an online survey. Commissioner Ken Welch and other commissioners on the PSTA board encourage citizens to ask for funds for electric bus charging infrastructure, as it meets the County’s top priority, transportation, as well as meeting criteria for innovative pilot programs, using only about 9% of the County’s BP settlement funds. 

St. Petersburg citizen representative Ben Diamond questioned the procurement process that PSTA staff is following with regards to electric buses, with CEO Brad Miller revealing to the board for the first time that if the agency’s federal “Low/No” grant proposal to acquire funds for 5 electric buses fails (a likely outcome, considering the number of applicants nationally for extremely limited funds and the widespread desire to acquire electric buses) that it is his plan to develop a procurement process for electric buses. Miller stated he would do so “immediately following this meeting.” Having heard this explanation, and being assured that the RFP would include a request for the option to lease the electric bus battery, Commissioner Welch stated he would not amend his Planning Committee motion to include this stipulation, as this action would be taken immediately by staff. 

The Tampa Bay Zero Emissions Coalition led off two hours of public comment and discussion with the recommendation that PSTA issue an RFP for electric buses. While PSTA has had 4 electric bus manufacturers come by in the last year with their buses to show PSTA, it has never formally issued an RFP as is done as a matter of course with all procurements. The fact that PSTA staff made its case for acquiring its first new diesel buses in eight years solely on the basis of the premise that the agency could afford only diesel buses in order to not have to cut back on service, while failing to actually perform a routine, thorough review of all options available from electric bus manufacturers, makes one wonder how seriously PSTA staff has ever regarded the possibility of including electric buses in its fleet. Against the consensus expressed by the eighteen members of the public who spoke, as well as all 15 board members, that PSTA should move forward to electric buses, it is now clear to all that agency staff must now do what it has neglected to do for over a year: follow its standard business procurement practice, and end all negative, baseless speculation about what electric buses might cost, how well they might perform, etc. 

Over 50 supporters of electric buses packed the PSTA board room, many wearing red along with red stickers that read: “STOP Polluting Pinellas: Zero Emission Electric Buses Now!” Speakers included representatives of Chart 411, Environment Florida, Florida Food & Water Watch, Florida Consumer Action Network, The Electric Marina, as well as team members of the Sierra Club’s Florida Healthy Air Campaign. Greenpeace members wore red shirts that read “STOP Global Warming”. In addition to the coalition's letter to the board, the coalition presented petitions signed by 625 local residents. Despite fear by staff of their traditional tea party opponents, just one lone representative spoke against new, clean and quiet electric transportation technology.  

Sierra Club and its 38 allies in the Tampa Bay Zero Emission Coalition look forward to the day when modern, clean, quiet, oil and emission free transportation is available in Pinellas County. If you act now to complete the survey, that day can come next year. Do it today – the deadline for comments is just a week away: June 30

Phil Compton, Senior Organizing Representative
Sierra Club National Beyond Oil / Florida Healthy Air Campaign Lead Organizer
1990 Central Avenue    St. Petersburg, FL 33712
office: 727-824-8813, ext. 303      cell: 813-841-3601

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