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Hillsborough bus agency gets $2.7 million for four electric buses

The electric buses will replace existing diesel buses on busy routes near downtown Tampa. Pinellas also received $1.2 million to expand its electric bus program.
A Proterra Catalyst 40-foot, zero-emission electric bus is seen at the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit's Metro Rapid bus stop at E. Kennedy Boulevard and Pierce Street Wednesday, May 30, 2018 in Tampa. The agency announced Wednesday that it received a $2.7 million grant to purchase four similar electric buses.   [Times files]
A Proterra Catalyst 40-foot, zero-emission electric bus is seen at the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit's Metro Rapid bus stop at E. Kennedy Boulevard and Pierce Street Wednesday, May 30, 2018 in Tampa. The agency announced Wednesday that it received a $2.7 million grant to purchase four similar electric buses. [Times files]
Published Aug. 12, 2020
Updated Aug. 13, 2020

TAMPA — Hillsborough’s transit agency is looking to cleanup its carbon output, thanks to a $2.7 million federal grant.

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority is using the money to buy its first four electric buses, which are expected to be on county streets in two years.

Unlike the loud, exhaust-filled rumblings of diesel buses, these vehicles will power entirely on a charge, produce zero emissions and run quietly.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, announced the grant Wednesday alongside the bus agency’s interim chief executive, board members and clean energy advocates. Castor chairs the U.S. House Select Committee on Climate Crisis, which recently released an action plan for a clean energy economy that includes recommendations to boost federal funding for the purchase of zero-emission transit buses.

“America needs to make different transportation and infrastructure choices in the years ahead,” Castor said. “And we have to do so at an enormous scale. That’s why I’m so excited that we’re really getting started here in my hometown.”

Hillsborough was one of five transit agencies in Florida to receive federal money this week for electric buses, stations and infrastructure. Pinellas also received $1.2 million to expand its electric program, which launched with two zero-emission buses in 2018.

Hillsborough’s transit agency operates 269 buses and vans in its fleet. Of those, 114 are diesel, 114 are compressed natural gas and 41 are gas. The four electric buses will replace four existing diesel buses, which typically average 50,000 miles annually and last an average of 10.2 years, according to a June report from the agency.

The agency has seen some cost and environmental savings by switching to compressed natural gas for part of its fleet. Those buses average 62,000 miles annually for an average of 8.8 years, according to the June report. That’s an average of 35,600 additional miles traveled per bus.

The same report said the compressed natural gas buses reduced greenhouse gas emissions at the agency by 2,200 tons and 29,200 barrels of oil.

Electric buses are expected to go beyond that, with vastly lower greenhouse gas emissions. New York City’s transit authority was predicted to save nearly 500,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year if it switched its fleet to all electric, according to a study conducted by Columbia University in 2016 for New York City Transit.

Because an electric bus is not as complex as the internal combustion engine in a diesel vehicle, the maintenance costs are expected to be 40 to 50 percent less expensive, the same report found.

An electric bus lasts an average of 12 years and 500,000 miles, Hillsborough transit agency spokeswoman Carson Chambers said.

“For our drivers it will be quiet, less vibration,” transit authority board member Pat Kemp said. “They’ll be wonderful in our community.”

Related: Pinellas' first electric bus is here. It's free. It's in St. Pete.

The Pinellas transit authority expects to add four more electric buses to its fleet by the end of this year, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority spokeswoman Stephanie Rank said. The first two cost about $2.1 million, including the necessary charging infrastructure, Rank said.

“Every time you get an internal combustion engine off the road, you’re helping to protect people’s public health,” said Susan Glickman, Florida Director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “The greenhouse gas reduction, the financial savings, what’s not to like? These issues couldn’t be more important.”

The electric buses can run about 150 miles on one charge and would be used on some of Hillsborough’s most frequented routes, interim chief executive Carolyn House Stewart said.

Those include a route from Marion Transit Center to Hillsborough Community College, an east/west route on Cypress Street and a route from Ybor City to Tampa General Hospital on Davis Islands, Chambers said.

In addition to the federal grant, the transit agency and Tampa Electric Co. will provide $2,742,675 — or half of the total project cost — for infrastructure such as underground wiring and charging stations.

Hillsborough’s transit agency will continue to reduce its inventory of diesel-fueled vehicles over the next few years by transitioning to electric buses as funding becomes available, Chambers said.

Kemp said she’d like to see the agency transition entirely to renewable energy, as other transit authorities in the country have pledged. Because the agency hasn’t set this as a goal, she didn’t know the cost or timeline for such an effort.

“It’s a process...but you’ve got to take the first step,” Glickman said. “I’m so proud that these four buses are going to replace polluting buses.”