At the February 22, 2017 board meeting, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board voted to purchase two 35-foot battery electric transit buses, plus a charging station from BYD Motors at a cost not to exceed $2,200,000. Nine members voted for the purchase while five voted against. One or two members were not present at the meeting.
The vote to purchase the two buses caps off what has been nearly two years of analysis and discussion within the agency, and between elected and community leaders, and citizens. The move also quells what could have been a very heated debate between environmental advocates who championed the agency to take part in the pilot project and Tea Party conservatives who were insistent that PSTA had broken a prior obligation to revert to purchasing only straight diesel transit bus purchases following the failed Greenlight Pinellas initiative.
The idea of PSTA taking part in an electric bus pilot project surfaced sometime in 2014, but gained momentum in 2015. During the course of mid 2015; four manufacturers were brought in to showcase their vehicles and convey their benefits to PSTA leaders, elected officials, and riders. First was Proterra Inc., followed by BYD, Complete Coach Works, and New Flyer.
In 2016, further analysis and research was done to examine costs and benefits to PSTA, as well as decide whether the investment was well worth it. During this time, there was a lot of misconceptions going around that the initial costs of the purchase would far outweigh the long term benefits of the electric buses, as well as misconceptions that straight diesel buses were a much economical choice over the battery electric buses and even the existing hybrid buses that the agency was purchasing.
In late 2016, the issue was brought up as to how to pay for the charging station, as PSTA only had resources available for the buses themselves. Pinellas County leaders ultimately voted to allocate a portion of settlement money from the 2010 BP oil spill incident in the Gulf of Mexico towards the purchase of the charging station. The City of St. Petersburg has also expressed chipping in funds for the pilot project and ongoing operation of the buses, and Duke Energy has expressed its desire to assist with the project as well.
Concerns regarding the cost of the electric buses and whether it was worth it for the agency to purchase them stirred the five board members who ultimately voted against the move. County Commissioner Brian Scott was specifically concerned about a recent report that came out from the Tampa Bay Times regarding the dire financial limitations on both PSTA and neighboring Hillsborough Area Regional Transit. Tea Party conservative Barbara Haselden, who served as head of No Tax For Tracks Pinellas, voiced criticism towards the board for not following through on what she sees as taxpayer wishes to create an economically sound and efficient transit system by reverting back to only purchasing straight diesel transit buses.
Once the buses are in operation, it is very likely that they will be used as part of an enhanced circulator route in Downtown St. Petersburg. There is currently a study underway to re-evaluate downtown circulator service. The buses will also complement three 35-foot Gillig Low Floor Hybrid Drive BRT style transit buses that are in place for the agency’s 2018 bus fleet order. While no official timeline has been set for the production and delivery of the BYD buses, it is likely that they will arrive sometime in late 2018. The Gillig buses will likely be numbered 18101 through 18103, while the BYD buses will likely be assigned unit numbers 18110 and 18111.