Diesel? Hybrid? CNG? Electric? That is the question for buses…

Bus Fuels 1
Clean Diesel? Diesel-Electric Hybrid? Compressed Natural Gas? or Battery Electric? Many transit agencies, like HART and PSTA, have been debating over which method to fuel their buses with over the past few years. Photo Credit: HARTride 2012.

It’s a question that all transit agencies have to face every so often, what are wanting to fuel our buses with? Back in the 1950s, the only option was really conventional diesel fuel. Today; agencies have a variety of avenues to choose from; Clean Diesel, Diesel-Electric Hybrid, Battery Electric, Compressed Natural Gas, Liquefied Natural Gas, and Biofuels. I may have missed a couple other avenues, but these are among the major ones.

Gear shifting in Pinellas and Hillsborough

Here in Tampa Bay, both Hillsborough Area Regional Transit and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority have been reliant on conventional diesel buses. In 2008, PSTA began shifting towards Clean Diesel and Diesel-Electric Hybrid buses in an effort to produce an environmentally sustainable bus fleet. Clean Diesel buses are pretty much now the standard for diesel fueled buses due to EPA regulations. HART tried out Diesel-Electric Hybrid in 2004, only to be left wondering if it was worth the cost – my understanding is that Diesel-Electric Hyrbid buses do cost more than diesel buses. In 2009, HART shifted to purchasing Clean Diesel buses as the bus manufacturers were no longer producing conventional diesel buses. That same year, PSTA began purchasing Diesel-Electric Hyrbid buses on full blast…with each subsequent purchase being only of that bus type. In 2014, HART began its shift towards a Compressed Natural Gas transit fleet thanks to a grant that allowed the agency to build an on-site fueling station. Paratransit vans were first to be replaced, and then in 2015…the transit buses began to roll in.

As agency budgets become tighter, HART is committed to staying on course with its CNG transition…ultimately converting its entire fleet to CNG by the time the 2006 and 2007 series buses are ready for retirement, which would be some time between 2018 and 2020. Federal grants that helped PSTA gain their Diesel-Electric Hybrid buses have unfortunately expired, leaving PSTA in a bind as to whether to continue purchasing them, or going back to Clean Diesel buses for a while.

The Proterra Electric Bus

In May, I was able to attend an electric bus showcase by Proterra Inc., which manufactures battery electric buses – like the ones used at Tallahassee’s StarMetro. That agency has five electric buses in revenue service, and from what I’ve heard…they love them! While the initial purchase cost is higher than other methods, the long term costs of powering and maintaining the bus goes down when compared to the other avenues. While I was extremely impressed with the Proterra Catalyst Electric Bus, and electric buses in general, neither HART or PSTA were on board. Both agencies argued that their routes are too long to handle the electric buses, and PSTA further argued that the purchase cost was too far out from what they could afford. To compound matters more, Tea Party activist Tom Rask argued that the battery electric buses are not emissions free, and handed out his sheet of “facts” to attendees.

So what was PSTA’s ultimate decision?

Well, they wanted to go with purchasing seven Clean Diesel buses for 2016 (and I’m betting they won’t be the sleek BRT model Gillig either, but rather just a standard low floor like the 2008-series Clean Diesel buses that the agency purchased before shifting to hybrid).

BUT…

By the end, the board of elected officials and resident representatives agreed to wait another month and for another discussion to decide how to replace the authority’s 200 buses as they reach retirement age.

So yes folks, we wait another month before we hear the final consensus from PSTA.

What has to happen before the battery electric bus can be fully embraced in Florida

In my opinion, in order for the battery electric bus to gain widespread support in Florida; one of the “Big Three” transit agencies will need to hop aboard – the Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority (also known as LYNX), the Jacksonville Transit Authority (JTA), and/or Miami-Dade Transit (MDT). Without either of these agencies on board, it is extremely unlikely that any Florida transit agency larger than StarMetro will say “yes” to the battery electric bus.

Footnotes

Some information in this article was sourced from the following article: Diesel vs. hybrid: Pinellas weighs options for new buses – Tampa Tribune – 8/30/15.


Going forward, this bottom section will list my contact information.

Please be sure to bookmark my website: hartride2012tampa.wordpress.com.

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Legalese | Disclosures

STORM MODE – Tropical Storm Erika

From now through at least Monday, I will be in #StormMode. This means that all planned blog posts will be suspended so that I can share important updates and information to the public. This includes updates on Erika, as well as transit service interruptions and road closures. Please be sure to follow me on Twitter at @TampaBayTransit for the latest. Twitter posts are cross-posted to my Facebook page for those who do not have a Twitter account.

Virginia Beach WAVE to begin winding down service for 2015

The Virginia Beach Oceanfront is always hopping! Especially during summer! Photo taken by HARTride 2012 in April, 2013.
The Virginia Beach WAVE shuttle service is winding down for Summer 2015. Photo credit: HARTride 2012, April, 2013.

The Virginia Beach WAVE summer shuttle service, which is operated by Hampton Roads Transit (HRT), will begin winding down services on Labor Day (Monday, September 7, 2015). Routes 31 and 32 and end service at their regular service end times on September 7, and will not resume service until in around Memorial Day weekend in 2016. Route 30, which traverses Atlantic Ave, will continue to run on a 20-minute headway beginning on Tuesday, September 8, 2015 until Wednesday, September 30, 2015. At that time, Route 30 service will end for 2015 and will not resume until around May 1, 2016.

Alternative year-round bus services include Routes 20, 29, 33, and 960.

I will be updating my Virginia Beach WAVE information page on Tuesday, September 8, 2015 and Thursday, October 1, 2015 respectively.

Any questions or concerns regarding the end of Virginia Beach WAVE 2015 services should be directed to HRT.

Labor Day 2015 Holiday Transit Schedule

Labor Day 2015 Banner 2

Monday, September 7, 2015 is Labor Day and many transit agencies will be running limited service, with some agencies not operating at all. As always, please see the listing below to see what level of service that each transit district will operate.

Labor Day 2015 Florida Service

Additional Notes:

Some trolleybus routes (Pinellas County) may operate on a schedule other than a Sunday schedule. Please check the transit district’s website for details.

Memorial Day 2015 NY-IL

Additional Notes:

NYCMTA Website

NY/NJ PATH Website

Chicago CTA Website

PACE Website (Chicago area suburban bus services)

Metra Website (Chicago area Commuter Rail services)

Labor Day 2015 Virginia Service

Customer Service Hours

Unless otherwise noted, please see below for Customer Service Center hours and Telephone Customer Service hours:

Labor Day 2015 Cust Serv 1

Labor Day 2015 Cust Serv 2

Additional Notes:

Ticket Vending Machines (TVMs) are available throughout the following locations for customer convenience.

  • HART (Tampa, FL): All major transit centers.
  • PSTA (St. Petersburg/Clearwater, FL): Pinellas Park, Grand Central, and Part St/Clearwater Transit Centers.
  • HRT (Norfolk/Hampton, VA): Along the Tide LRT corridor in Norfolk, as well as at HRT transit centers, the High St Ferry station, and at select (summer) locations along the Virginia Beach Oceanfront.

Normal Transit Service Resumption:

Regular weekday transit services will resume on Tuesday, September 8, 2015.

Disclaimer:

All information in this post have been compiled from the websites and social media channels of the respective transit agencies listed above. Ultimately, the agencies themselves are responsible for the accuracy of information that I’ve gathered. However, if you notice something that I’ve written that doesn’t match what the agency has posted (mistakes do happen, we’re all human), please let me know right away so that I can correct the information. Thank you.

Why Privatizing Public Transit is BAD NEWS

The debate has sprung up at least a couple of times in the past five years here in Tampa Bay, but now it seems that the debate on whether to contract out public transit agencies to a private operator is gaining some steam. Right smack dab in the middle of this debate are at least three public transit agencies in Central Florida; Manatee County Area Transit (MCAT), Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT), and most recently…the Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority (also known as LYNX).

The argument to privatize transit

Many fiscal conservatives, including those who associate themselves with the Tea Party, have argued that publicly run transit agencies are financially bloated and inefficient. They chastise local governments for not having their “ducks in a row” when it comes to operating reliable transit services without breaking the bank, and for being far too dependent on state and federal funding sources – namely the latter. In turn, they also argue that private companies such as MV Transportation and TransDev can run these agencies with greater efficiency and financial solvency than the municipalities that currently operate and fund them. It almost sounds like logical sense in the minds of fiscal conservatives…right? Why have governments operate inefficient transit when private enterprise can manage transit like a business?

With the economic downturn of 2008/09, many transit agencies were forced to slash services as federal and state funding for transit declined. Many agencies have turned to contracting out at least some of their services to the private sector in an effort to save money.

What privatized transit generally looks like

There are two major forms of privatization that pertain to public transit: 1) Contract out transit services to the private operator, but allow the public entity to plan out and finance those services, 2) Allow the private operator to handle both operations and planning.

In the first scenario – seen in parts of the US; the private operator would be contracted to provide their workforce to operate the transit routes and would be given the necessary resources (route assignments, schedules, etc.) for the contracted employees to do their jobs. Meanwhile, the transit agency would retain responsibility for planning and financing services and their board of directors and executive staff would likely be retained to oversee day-to-day operations.

In the second scenario – seen in many parts of Europe and in Australia; the private entity does virtually all the work…from operating the routes, to paying the employees, to planning out and financing services. The role of the government in the scenario is reduced and the public element of the transit agency may be limited to just the board of directors and a few key executive members. In this case, the transit agencies operate similar to what the airlines would, bringing forth a business-like competition to the service area.

The pros and cons to privatization

While I’m not going to spend a ton of time going through each of the pros and cons of privatizing transit in detail, it is important to know what some of them are.

Pros

  • Generally less burden on public entities and governments.
  • Competitive environment – like the airlines (in the case of the second scenario described above).
  • Greater flexibility of routes and services.
  • Greater economic flexibility.
  • Generally lower employee wages.
  • Lower overall cost of doing business.

Cons

  • Focus is on making profits, not providing excellent service – Massive cuts to the agency’s services and routes could be made at the expense of meeting profit margins.
  • Less accountability – difficult to hold the private operator accountable for its actions.
  • Greater risk of late buses and trains, as well as “no shows”.
  • Less public input on service changes, except public hearings that are required to be held by law.
  • Lower customer satisfaction and employee morale.
  • Government subsidies needed to shore up unproductive services and meet government regulations – such as Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act here in the US.

Problems with privatized transit in Fairfield, CA

Fairfield and Suisun Transit (FAST) in Fairfield, CA has experienced problems since it was outsourced to MV Transportation. Buses have been consistently late – or not shown up at all, customer complaints have increased, and employee morale has decreased. Despite these troubles, FAST decided to renew its contract with MV in 2014. As recent as May, 2015, dismay has been expressed over how FAST transit workers are compensated. These problems definitely bring to the forefront that contracting out transit services to the private sector isn’t the best way to go about saving money and rebuilding public trust.

Agencies in New Orleans, LA, Long Island (Nassau County), NY, and even Austin, TX have all outsourced their transit operations to private companies. While I’m not sure about how Austin is doing, both Nassau County, NY and New Orleans have experienced problems since privatizing their transit services.

The situation with MCAT/SCAT

Discussions about privatizing MCAT and/or SCAT have arisen in recent years, but were never pursued further. Additionally, a 2013 survey showed that almost 60% of customers were against even merging the two agencies. However, things took an interesting turn when private transit operator TransDev jumped into the foray with an unsolicited proposal to merge the two entities and simultaneously making the united entity a privatized one. While Manatee County seems to be on board, Sarasota County needs more time to examine the repercussions should the proposal be approved. Some have pointed that MCAT and SCAT would do better as one body – but not under private hands, and many customers have voiced time and time again that they don’t want their transit agencies to be run by a private company – fearing many of the same repercussions that are already being felt in Fairfield, CA with FAST.

The situation with LYNX

Some in Orlando, including Congressman John Mica, have expressed dismay at LYNX’s lack of ability to create a better transit network – including efficient connections to SunRail. These parties believe that contracting out LYNX services to the private sector would force the agency to make better decisions in order to better serve customers. There is even talk of legislation that would basically impose strict guidelines on LYNX and force the agency to bid out its system to private transit operators like TransDev and MV. I’m not sure how far the legislation would go, or if it would only apply to LYNX, or stretch out to be a statewide mandate – eventually opening the door for agencies like Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) to have to do the same thing. One thing is clear though, the SunRail advocacy group – The SunRail Riders – have expressed heavy dismay towards the proposal, citing that it will turn LYNX into an entity that beefs up SunRail connections at the expense of routes that are dearly needed by riders in other areas of Osceola, Orange, and Seminole Counties.

Why privatizing MCAT/SCAT could lead to the privatization of PSTA

If the privatization plan goes through with MCAT and SCAT, there is no doubt in my mind that Tea Party activists, like Barbara Haselden of Pinellas County, will see even more reason to lobby county and state officials into contracting out the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) out to the private sector. These activists have long argued that PSTA is mismanaged and cannot think outside the box. They also believe that privatization is the only way to “protect the taxpayers from further waste”. PSTA has already contracted out paratransit services, only to see disastrous results (although issues supposedly have been addressed and resolved), and the agency is now having to look at possibly contracting out its express routes due to budgetary constraints, and the failure of the Greenlight Pinellas referendum.

Why privatizing LYNX could lead to the privatization of SunRail

Tea Party activists have also argued that both LYNX and SunRail are grossly inefficient and that SunRail has no long term funding source, or long term management plan by the various municipalities that would have to begin operating it when the state relinquishes control in 2021. If LYNX becomes privatized, there is no doubt in my mind that these activists will call on the state to also bid out SunRail to a private operator. Why? Because I’m very sure that their argument will be “if you privatize LYNX, then you also have to privatize SunRail”, and I’m willing to bet that this is exactly what winds up happening. In addition, privatizing LYNX could also open the door for – as I mentioned, PSTA to also be bidded out to the private sector. It’s like a game of dominoes…once one agency is privatized, others will start looking into privatization as well. And then fiscal conservatives, along with the Tea Party, will advocate our elected officials to force privatization upon our transit agencies.

All three agencies could stand to lose a lot

If MCAT, SCAT, and LYNX are all privatized, you can likely expect that customer satisfaction will plummet, customer complaints will rise, buses will be late – or not even show up, needed routes will be cut in order to shore up ones that the private operator sees as “profitable”, employee morale will decline, and the list goes on and on. In short, expect far worse service from these agencies if they are privatized. It has already happened to FAST and several other agencies throughout the US. We simply cannot allow this to happen here in Florida.

Monorail, why isn’t there more systems in the US?

The Walt Disney World Monorail is one of only a handful of monorail systems in operation in the United States. Seattle and Las Vegas also have monorail lines. Photo Credit: HARTride 2012. March, 2014.
The Walt Disney World Monorail is one of only a handful of monorail systems in operation in the United States. Seattle and Las Vegas also have monorail lines. Photo Credit: HARTride 2012. March, 2014.

One mode of public transportation that has always fascinated me is the monorail. Unlike conventional urban trains, like subways, monorails comprise of a one-beam track system and can either be built like something shown in the photo above, or as a suspended model, where trains are suspended below the beam. Monorails have long been touted as “the wave of the future” in public transit, allowing for a unique alternative to sitting in traffic or even using congested bus lines. The relatively narrow footprint of a monorail line can easily beat out building a conventional rail line, but the downside is that all stations are elevated, requiring elevator access for wheelchair customers.

Although many monorail systems exist worldwide (including a few lines that are either planned or under construction in Sao Paulo, Brazil), only a handful of them exist in the United States. Furthermore, many systems (both in the US and abroad) are primarily hinge off tourist traffic or are part of an amusement park or zoo, creating a negative stigma that monorails are nothing more than an amusement ride rather than meaningful public transportation. This negative stigma plagues systems like the Las Vegas Monorail, the Seattle Monorail, and the Newark International Airport AirTrain.

The Las Vegas Monorail in particular has been dealing with lower than projected ridership and its operating company filed for bankruptcy protection in 2010. Two extension proposals, one towards downtown Las Vegas, and another towards McCarran Airport have both been cancelled, with only a revised extension to the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino remaining alive. It is currently unclear if the latest plans will pull through to reality, and plans for an underground light rail/pre-metro line appears to be taking priority over any subsequent monorail extension plans. The Newark AirTrain is currently being debated for replacement due to its short projected lifespan of only 25 years, and replacing the monorail with either another monorail system or other mode of rail transport has proven to be costly. This leads some to believe that the AirTrain will be ultimately replaced in the short term by buses.

Even talk about building a monorail system in Tampa Bay has been nothing more than just talk. To the best of my knowledge, there have not been any official plans for any monorail lines in Central Florida outside of Walt Disney World.

On top of the theme park stigma and elevated stations; constructing monorail lines often have to deal with the usual transportation challenges such as land acquisition, track and station construction, manufacturing rolling stock, etc. and all of the associated costs. All of this is already on top of the general anti-rail sentiment that has filled many parts of the car-dependent US.

So the bottom line is, until monorails can prove to the US that they can be a reliable public transportation model, don’t expect any new lines to be built for the foreseeable future.

Go Hillsborough – Public Outreach Meetings – Phase II

Go Hillsborough Phase II Meetings

Meeting Schedule Updated on 10/14/15.

This post will list all upcoming Phase II Go Hillsborough public outreach meetings. These meetings are focused on which specific projects that county residents want to see in the final community transportation plan. These meetings began yesterday, August 17, 2015, and will continue through the month of October. In November, a decision is expected to be made by our county leaders as to whether or not to place a sales tax referendum onto the November, 2016 ballot.

From the Go Hillsborough website:

Now, we need your input on which specific projects you want in your neighborhood so that we can finalize the Community Transportation Plan. Over the next few weeks, GO Hillsborough will host another 54 meetings in libraries across the County. We will also continue to host our website, our social channels and our comment line. Please join us online or in person and make your voice and your choice heard.

Important Notice

Despite recent developments, the planned Go Hillsborough meetings are still scheduled to be held through October. If anything changes, this post will be updated as soon as possible.

Upcoming Meetings

Below is a summary of upcoming meeting dates, times, and locations. Please visit the Go Hillsborough website for a full list of meetings. Please keep in mind that an RSVP is not required, you can simply show up to these meetings.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

North Tampa Area
North Tampa Branch Library
8916 North Blvd, Tampa, FL 33604
10:00AM to 12-Noon

Progress Village Area
78th Street Community Library
7625 Palm River Rd, Tampa, FL 33619
5:30PM to 7:30PM

Full meeting schedule is available at gohillsborough.org.

The 2015 Back to School Post

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Well folks! It’s that time again! Time for many people to head back to school! And whether you’re a college student attending one of the local colleges or universities, or a parent trying to get some last minute school supply shopping done for your children, it is always important to know that with the school year starting back up, you can expect increased traffic on the roads. And yes, that includes those big yellow school buses!

As always with school buses, it is imperative that drivers pay close attention out on the roads…especially when those buses come to a stop to pick up or drop off passengers. If you’re not aware already; all 50 states the US have laws that revolve around school buses, specifically laws that make it illegal to pass a school bus when it is stopped (and its lights are flashing and signs are extended out). Sadly, there are too many incidents by which vehicles pass a stopped school bus as it is loading or unloading passengers, and some of those incidents have involved fatalities or serious injury.

If you don’t think I’m serious about this matter, then please take a moment to jog on over to Shawn’s School Bus Driver website, where he has a page dedicated to this matter in particular. There are also neat diagrams on the page that illustrate which situations where all traffic must stop while a school bus is loading or unloading passengers, and a couple of videos that show just what can happen when other drivers fail to follow the law. I applaud Shawn for putting his time and effort into making such an informative page!

With that said, I wish everyone that is headed back to the classroom a safe and wonderful school year!

ALWAYS BE AWARE OF THE BIG YELLOW SCHOOL BUS! Photo Credit: HARTride 2012.
ALWAYS BE AWARE OF THE BIG YELLOW SCHOOL BUS! Photo Credit: HARTride 2012.

Presenting HART’s new website!

Just a piece of HART's newly redesigned website. Screenshot taken on 8/16/15 by HARTride 2012.
Just a piece of HART’s newly redesigned website. Screenshot taken on 8/16/15 by HARTride 2012.

The long wait is over at last! Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) has launched its newly redesigned website!

While the official launch date is today, Monday, August 17, 2015, the new website actually went online over the weekend. In fact, I managed to catch a final glimpse of the old website Saturday night in around 8:00pm and was simultaneously greeted with a dialogue box that asked me to sign into a server of some sort. I right away realized that the old website was being taken offline for the last time. By the time midnight Sunday morning came around, the new site appeared to be up and running. So far, I’m very much impressed with the new look and layout!

The homepage is very similar to that of Tampa International Airport’s recently redesigned website, where as you scroll down, you are presented with various menus and links. The background consists of various new scenes of the HART system in action; including a customer waiting for a MetroRapid bus to arrive, a close-up of HART’s 1300-series Gillig Low Floor bus, and a HART Flex cutaway van arriving at a residence for customer pickup. From the homepage, you’ll have quick and easy access to route schedules and system maps, general system information, computer and smartphone-based apps (including OneBusAway), HART news and meeting information, and much, much more.

If you’re a smartphone user, you probably know by now how difficult the old website was to navigate. Those days are over because the new site is mobile friendly!

Screen capture of the mobile site, taken on 8/16/15.
Screen capture of the mobile site, taken on 8/16/15.

As I continue to explore the new website, I may publish several follow-up posts about my experience. In the meantime, you can access the new website via the same web address…www.gohart.org.

Note: Please keep in mind that some of the information currently posted on the HART website is still being worked on. Some bus schedules will not display correctly.

NOTICE OF PUBLIC HEARING Proposed Fare Increase

Ride PSTA

Proposed Fare Increase
Effective October 11, 2015

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) will hold a Public Hearing on:
Wednesday, September 9, 2015 at 6:00 p.m.
PSTA Administration Building
3201 Scherer Drive, St. Petersburg, FL 33716

Hearing is schedule for ½ hour, but will be extended if necessary. The proposal will be available online one week in advance of the hearing, and printed copies will be available at the hearings. If you are unable to attend in person, written comments are welcome by mail or email.

Mail to: PSTA Budget Public Hearing or PSTA Fare Public Hearing
3201 Scherer Drive, St. Petersburg, FL 33716

Email comments to: engage@psta.net

For the official record, please include your name and address on all correspondence. If you need a sign language interpreter, large print material, or other ADA accommodations in order to participate, please call the InfoLine at (727) 540-1900 or email engage@psta.net one…

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