More Pinellas buses to be equipped with wireless Internet by next summer

12/18/13 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: psta, HART, transit, Wi-Fi, Transportation, buses


St. Pete City Council and PSTA board member Wengay Newton and PSTA CEO Brad Miller unveil one of ten new buses with wiresless access.

photo by Janelle Irwin

Ten buses in Pinellas County are now equipped with Wi-Fi. And Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority CEO Brad Miller says the agency plans to add wireless access to all of its 188-bus fleet.

“We’re hoping the Spring that they should be starting right after the first of the year installing the rest of them. Hopefully by this summer we’ll have all of them done.”

The announcement came Wednesday during a virtual ribbon cutting celebration led by St. Pete City Council and PSTA board member Wengay Newton.

Miller, PSTA’s CEO along with board member Jeff Danner and other PSTA staff pretended to cut an imaginary ribbon as a video of a real ribbon cutting played on a big screen TV. The bus behind them is one of the ten loaded with free wireless access that have been on the road since just after Thanksgiving.

“It’s all about trying to make it more convenient for riders. We’re trying to, obviously, show we need improved mass transit – more buses, more frequency through Greenlight Pinellas with a whole new system into the future – we want to give our customers what they deserve now.”

Miller says some riders expressed interest in wireless access, but the idea was approached cautiously.

“There were some concerns that some earlier technology on the mobile Wi-Fis were not that great. So, some systems in California, we found out, actually took theirs off because too many people on it at the same time and it gets really slow, kind of like at a hotel or something and then they were getting so many complaints they took it off.”

Funding was also an initial issue. To install hardware on all PSTA will spend about $200,000 up front for hardware. Then it will cost about $100,000 a year for the wireless service with Verizon. The ten buses PSTA is piloting with Wi-Fi are brand new.

“It has that new bus smell still.”

Miller says the new buses, and those purchased as the agency replaces those retiring from the fleet, have hybrid-diesel engines.

“It gets about 40% better fuel economy average than our regular buses and on the slower operating routes like the trolleys along the beach, it gets even better than that.” But even though the buses will save on fuel expenses, they are still expected to cost PSTA more over the long-run.

“When you combine the fuel economy with the savings, the maintenance savings, it’s still not probably a wash, but over the life cycle of the bus it’s probably less than $50,000 difference. I think we computed it, it was about $40,000 more expensive to buy a hybrid than a regular diesel bus over its life and the board has committed that that is a value that we want. And then, of course, if fuel prices go up, those numbers change.”

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, or HART, is in the process of converting its fleet to compressed natural gas. That move is expected to save more than a dollar per gallon on fuel costs. Miller says CNG was considered for his fleet, but because bus routes in Pinellas County tend to be longer than those in Hillsborough, it wasn’t feasible.

“We are right at the edge of the amount of energy that we need with a whole day’s run with CNG and that’s sort of an issue. We can’t have the buses run out of fuel, or they run out and then have to come back here to the facility and then go back because that would cost more.”

PSTA now has 40 of its buses running on hybrid engines with eight more on order for late next year. The new buses were purchased with federal grant money. The hybrid buses cost $600,000 each. That’s about $200,000 more than a standard diesel model.

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