Pinellas’ first electric bus is here. It’s free. It’s in St. Pete.

Published October 3 2018
Updated October 4 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — The rumblings of a bus tend to be loud and exhaust-filled. Pinellas County’s bus agency wants to change that around here.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority purchased two electric busses that will start running this weekend in downtown St. Petersburg. The zero-emission vehicles will operate along the 4.6-mile Looper route, which will be free for all riders starting Sunday.

TIMES ANALYSIS: Tampa Bay has one of the worst public transit systems in America. Here’s why.

Politicians and transit advocates gathered outside City Hall for Wednesday’s unveiling of the county’s first all-electric bus. They marveled at how quiet one of them was as it pulled up on Fifth Street N.

"It’s got that new car smell, doesn’t it?" Kriseman asked as they boarded the bus.

The $1.2 million E-Looper service complete a rare feat in Tampa Bay by securing money from all levels of government: city, county, state and federal.

"Being a part of this community means we work together," Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long said. "Look at what we have here, thanks to the amazing support of our partners."

RELATED: Could Trump starve a Tampa Bay transit project of federal funds?

The Pinellas bus agency bought the first two electric buses using $1.7 million from its 2016 capital budget. Then, in 2017 the Federal Transit Administration awarded the agency $1 million to buy two more electric buses that are set to arrive in 2019.

Then local officials were surprised when the federal agency gave them another grant this year, allowing Pinellas to buy another two buses in 2020. Officials applied even though they knew that federal grant is rarely repeated.

"With two grants two years in a row, we are one of few transit system in the country which have gotten that," Miller said.

The electric buses will run on the route alongside additional trolleys in order to provide service every 15 minutes on the new Looper service. The city of St. Petersburg will pay about $360,000 each year to operate the expanded service, which is free for riders.

RELATED: Plan envisions ‘rapid’ bus trips from St. Pete to beaches. But will Trump fund it?

Previously, the Looper cost 50 cents per ride, didn’t start service until 10 a.m. and ended by 5 p.m. on most nights.

Starting Sunday, the Looper will carry passengers until at least 10 p.m. each night. Weekday service starts at 7 a.m., with the first bus leaving at 8 a.m. on Saturdays and Sunday.

Electric buses take time to charge, however, so the Pinellas County Commission used about $600,000 from the BP settlement to buy an en-route charging station in front of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus. That station should be open in December, Miller said.

"Today we are quite literally leading the charge. It’s electrifying." Miller quipped to chuckles from the crowd.

RELATED: Tampa Bay’s new transit goal: Dedicated BRT lanes from St. Pete to USF Tampa

Aside from the cheesy puns, though, the announcement was also a win for transit advocates who are used to spending years, if not decades, to see their plans come to fruition.

"It’s exciting in transportation to see ride something that’s the result of years of hard work," said St. Petersburg City Council Darden Rice, who sits on the Pinellas bus agency’s board, as she and other supporters rode on the new electric bus for a quick trip through downtown.

The electric busses and expanded Looper route are the latest in a string of transportation upgrades for the city and county. Kriseman rallied support from other local governments and brought his beloved Cross Bay Ferry back for another season, which is set to start next month.

And the Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit project, which will connect downtown St. Petersburg to the beaches with dedicated lanes for rapid buses, received state funding and is on track to start running in 2020 so long as federal dollars comes through.

RELATED: New 2024 Howard Frankland plan: 8-lane bridge with bike path

Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.