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Tampa Bay transit agency opts for all-electric buses on regional route

The move pushes estimated start-up costs to $180 million for proposed 2030 service.
A Proterra Catalyst 40-foot, zero-emission electric bus is seen at the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit's Metro Rapid bus stop at East Kennedy Boulevard and Pierce Street in 2018. The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority board said Friday a proposed 41-mile bus rapid transit route from Wesley Chapel to St. Petersburg should be operated with electric buses.
A Proterra Catalyst 40-foot, zero-emission electric bus is seen at the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit's Metro Rapid bus stop at East Kennedy Boulevard and Pierce Street in 2018. The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority board said Friday a proposed 41-mile bus rapid transit route from Wesley Chapel to St. Petersburg should be operated with electric buses. [ "ALESSANDRA DA PRA | TIMES" ]
Published Apr. 25

TAMPA — If a regional rapid bus system ever starts rolling between Wesley Chapel and St. Petersburg, it’ll be electric.

That’s electric as in no diesel fuel.

The governing board of the Tampa Bay Regional Transit Authority, known commonly by the acronym TBARTA, agreed Friday to use electric buses on the proposed transit system that is not expected to be operational until 2030.

Moving to all electric vehicles from an earlier plan to use hybrid diesel- and battery-powered buses, will add about 20 percent to the initial capital costs, pushing the price estimates to start the system to $180 million.

Related: Is there a reboot coming for Hillsborough-Pasco rapid transit route?

The 41-mile route posed a challenge to running buses without a way to recharge while in service. The board agreed to a plan to install 11 charging stations at eight locations in addition to the 15 chargers needed at the overnight depot.

“My preference: Build infrastructure including charging stations. Don’t throw more buses at it,” said board chairperson Cliff Manuel of Brooksville.

The earlier plan to use hybrid buses entailed 22 vehicles to run the four planned routes from State Road 54 in Pasco County to downtown Tampa and on to the city of St. Petersburg. Going fully electric will require 36 vehicles if no route charging stations are available. Adding the chargers, cuts the required fleet to 29 buses.

The upfront spending on more expensive electric vehicles and charging stations will have other benefits. Calculations, compiled by a federal Transit Agency matrix, put annual environmental savings at $568,000 per electric bus, including better safety, reduced energy use and air quality benefits.

“I don’t think you’ll get any opposition to doing what is best for the environment,” said St. Petersburg City Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, which has ordered 80 electric buses to be delivered over five years, has said it anticipates saving $20,000 per vehicle annually on diesel fuel. The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority also announced its ambitions to replace its entire fleet with all electric vehicles by 2035 at a cost of $170 million.

The proposed bus system, called regional rapid transit by the agency, would require an estimated $7.5 million annually for operations and a likely local match of about 20 percent for any federal dollars obtained for the upfront capital expenses.

Those funding sources have not been identified, nor has it been determined who would operate the planned transit system.

Opposition to the regional transit plan remains in Hillsborough County because of public reluctance to add additional lanes to Interstate 275 to accommodate the buses and added vehicle traffic. That became apparent again Friday when board members learned the city of Tampa did not plan to contribute requested funding to the agency.

In a Dec. 8 letter to the authority, Mayor Jane Castor turned down the request for $69,000, noting the city needed local matching dollars for the TECO Historic Streetcar system and other transportation expenses including street paving, sidewalk construction, bridge rehabilitation, seawall upgrades and signals at dangerous intersections.

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The cities of St, Petersburg and Tampa do not currently make financial contributions to the transit agency’s operations. The authority made the request because it is seeking additional funding sources as it tries to reduce its reliance on annual state appropriations that have been vetoed the past two years by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

However, Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp said Friday the transit authority has itself to blame for its negative public perception in Tampa because of the planned highway expansions to accommodate the regional buses.

“If you want to change the perception of TBARTA, you’re going to have to change the projects you’re doing,” she said.

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