PINELLAS PARK — When all is said and done, a bus ride is still a bus ride, even when it's on one of the county's snazzy new SmartBuses.
Sure, the diesel-electric hybrids are a bit quieter and smoother than the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority's traditional diesel buses. And the area for wheelchair passengers is a bit roomier. But they hold the same 34 passengers as regular 35-foot-long diesel buses. They carry bikes just as the regular buses. And they stop at the same stops.
But the SmartBuses really excel at one thing — being environmentally friendly.
The technology reduces the amount of fuel used by at least 18 percent. When combined with special exhaust filters, soot emissions are cut by 90 percent. Hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide emissions drop by about 90 percent, and nitrous oxide emissions are cut in half.
Those are selling points to riders like Alison Martinez of St. Petersburg. She rides buses all the time because she has no driver's license.
"I think cars stink," Martinez said.
Martinez agreed the SmartBus ride seems smoother, quieter and more comfortable than regular buses, although she wasn't sure if that was a function of the technology or the newness of the vehicles. But the best part, she said, is knowing the bus doesn't pollute as much.
"It's good to have something environmentally friendly," Martinez said. "I love the nonpolluting factor."
But all this comes at a cost: SmartBuses have a price tag of $545,000 each, much higher than the $355,565 cost for a regular bus. The federal government paid for all 10 of the PSTA's SmartBuses and will use stimulus money to pay for the next 14 the transit agency plans to have on the road by early 2010. As a requirement for the funding, the PSTA has to run them for 12 years, spokesman Bob Lasher said.
That's okay with Martinez.
"I think just the (clean) air factor alone makes up for the cost" especially where people's health is concerned, she said. The cost of treating diseases caused by pollution is much more in the long run than the cost of the new buses, she said.
"Most people have never seen anything like it," PSTA director Tim Garling said. "We call it the SmartBus because it captures and uses energy that's normally discarded by standard vehicles."
The PSTA is moving the SmartBuses around so that everyone will have a chance to see one and ride it.
The SmartBus uses battery power when running at speeds less than 20 mph. The fuel-efficient engines are about the same size as those found in pickup trucks and smaller than the typical diesel bus engine.
Electric generators are built into the SmartBus transmission. When the driver lifts his foot off the accelerator, resistance created by the generators slows and stops the bus while the batteries are recharging.
A computer setting controls the acceleration rate. The computer is adjusted to help avoid harsh jolts when drivers step on the gas.
"Some drivers think the buses feel slow to accelerate, but that can easily be changed if it becomes a problem," Lasher said. "Also, they don't hear the same loud whine of the diesel engine when they accelerate from a stop, which plays a role in making it 'seem' slower."
It's unclear how much fuel Pinellas will save by using the SmartBuses. Lasher said that, based on results from other transit systems, the PSTA expects the hybrids to use 20 percent less fuel than standard buses, though some systems across the country are getting much higher fuel savings. It depends upon the speed, number of stops along the route and the driver's ability to use the braking power, Lasher said. Lower speed routes with many stops will reap the biggest savings sin fuel. At speeds of more than 20 mph, computers blends the battery power with diesel power, which takes over fully at about 25 mph.
"Since much of this is new technology, we'll be finding out about costs and savings as we go," Lasher said. "We are estimating that brakes on the buses will last at least two to three times longer.
"As our trainers like to brag, once drivers are comfortable letting the electric motors in the transmission slow and stop the bus … they can pretty much drive all day without using the brakes. If, on the other hand, a driver just goes back and forth from the brake pedal to accelerator, the brakes will get more wear and fuel savings won't be optimal."