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Port Authority of Allegheny County considers adding electric buses

Jason Cato
| Friday, June 24, 2016, 11:40 p.m.
A Port Authority bus drives through Downtown on Friday, January 25, 2012.                          
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
A Port Authority bus drives through Downtown on Friday, January 25, 2012. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review

Many of the aging, exhaust-spewing buses operated by the Port Authority of Allegheny County are being swapped out for new, more environmentally friendly rides.

But even better, zero-pollution buses soon could join the expansive fleet, Authority CEO Ellen McLean said.

“We are looking at electric buses,” she said. “Right now, it's largely a distance issue. We need them to travel further.”

Port Authority board members on Friday unanimously approved a $413 million operating budget and $200 million capital budget for fiscal year 2017, which begins in July.

The operating budget increased $14.5 million over last year, with the increase mostly covering higher costs for health care as well as pensions and other expenses for retired workers.

The capital budget includes about $190 million in state and federal money. More than $48 million will be used to buy 70 new clean-diesel buses, which will be put into service next fall.

This fall, 75 clean-diesel buses purchased last year will replace older buses in the fleet of nearly 730.

Those additions will reduce maintenance costs and emissions, potentially by up to 90 percent, McLean said.

The Port Authority has an option to buy another 400 clean-diesel buses over the next five years. Each costs $455,415 and is paid for by the federal government as long as it remains in service for 12 years or 500,000 miles, McLean said.

Electric buses cost an extra $225,000 each, she said. It has yet to be determined how many years or miles they would have to last — or could last in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.

“Some of our routes cover 150 miles,” McLean said, noting that some electric buses could go only 50 miles before needing to be recharged.

Two electric bus makers have visited Pittsburgh with their 40-foot coaches, which were tested on Port Authority routes. A third could bring its 60-foot model here as early as next month, McLean said.

Port Authority plans to request bids in the fall for a contract to supply about 200 electric buses in the next several years, she said. Preliminary routes where they could be used are on the busways and between Downtown and Oakland.

Battery technology isn't to the point where electric buses could be used on all Port Authority routes.

“Our topography is an issue,” said Port Authority spokesman Adam Brandolph. “Diesel is powerful enough to get up our steepest hills.”

Several community-based groups implored the Port Authority to “green” its fleet as much and as soon as possible.

Those groups included the Allegheny County Transit Council, the Group Against Smog and Pollution, Pittsburghers for Public Transit and 350 Pittsburgh.

“Renewable energy has never had stronger support from the government, corporations and the public,” said Fred Kraybill of Point Breeze, a member of the 350 group.

Chris Sandvig, policy director for Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, outlined some of the initiatives his group wants Port Authority to adopt:

• Make all buses, inclines and light-rail trains fossil fuel-free by 2030;

• Replace all diesel buses put into service before 2006 as soon as possible;

• Expand its diesel-hybrid fleet and add electric buses; and

• Join the city of Pittsburgh's pledge for emissions reductions.

“There are a lot of groups that really want to see this happen, and the city has made a commitment,” Sandvig said. “We want a commitment to move away from fossil fuels. We support Port Authority going forward, and we are here to help.”

Jason Cato is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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