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Pittsburgh Aims for Zero-Emission Bus Fleet by 2045

If CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman could change Pittsburgh Regional Transit's 715 diesel buses to run on electricity or hydrogen with the flip of a switch or by writing a check, she would do it immediately.

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(TNS) — If CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman could change Pittsburgh Regional Transit's 715 diesel buses to run on electricity or hydrogen with the flip of a switch or by writing a check, she would do it immediately.

Because making such a dramatic change isn't that simple, the agency announced Wednesday a goal of having a zero-emission fleet by 2045. That's how long Ms. Kelleman and her staff estimated it will take to update maintenance facilities and train employees on new procedures to accommodate the new types of vehicles.

In a news conference at the end of the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway in Downtown Pittsburgh, Ms. Kelleman and a variety of governmental, environmental and health officials touted the benefits of shifting away from diesel buses. In addition to electric, which are available now, Ms. Kelleman said PRT also will consider vehicles powered by hydrogen or other non-fossil fuel as new technology develops.

"It would be great to buy 60 electric buses next year, but do we have the facilities to take care of them?" Ms. Kelleman said. "The answer is no. It's just not something that can be changed overnight."

Ms. Kelleman said PRT will replace buses incrementally as it installs the infrastructure to charge and maintain electric vehicles, which cost more initially but have been shown to have fewer maintenance issues. Electric vehicles have about 20 parts that need regular maintenance compared to about 300 on diesel buses, she said.

The agency has about 730 buses, eight of them electric and seven of them hybrid. It recently ordered 15 articulated electric buses, each 60 feet long, that will be used for the Bus Rapid Transit system between Downtown and Oakland, which will begin two years of construction next year.

In late July, officials said PRT could replace more than half its fleet over the next five years. At that time, it also placed orders for 92 other articulated diesel buses from Canadian company New Flyer, which has a manufacturing facility in Alabama, and 30 diesel buses that are 40 feet long from Gillig of California because it doesn't have facilities for electric vehicles yet.

Diesel buses typically last about 12 years before they have to be replaced because of mileage and wear, so another part of the time it takes to shift to zero-emission vehicles involves using existing vehicles through their full life cycle.

PRT Chief Development Officer David Huffaker said the agency would begin providing electric buses first from its East Liberty garage because that facility serves the Bus Rapid Transit area. Then, electric maintenance facilities will be added at the agency's three other garages, beginning with Collier, as well as charging stations along various bus routes.

Mr. Huffaker said details such as the estimated cost and timeline for making those maintenance facility upgrades are expected to be outlined for the authority board committees next week.

PRT is following a growing trend among transit agencies that have set zero-emission goals. The American Public Transportation Association said agencies in Los Angeles (2030), Montgomery County, Md., (2035), Portland, Ore., (2040), and Vancouver (2050) have set goals in recent years.

"We're not unique," Mr. Huffaker said of the extended changeover. "It's something the whole industry is going to face."

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said continuing to improve air quality will have a positive impact on the region's physical and economic health by making it a more attractive place for business expansion.

Dr. Debra Brogen, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, said reducing diesel pollution will be "a lifeline to people of all ages." Joylette Portlock, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh, said reducing diesel pollution is "part of doing all the things that are needed for our region to thrive."

Ms. Kelleman noted that air quality in the region has improved with the decline of the steel industry. But there remain equity issues, she said, because air pollution is worse in lower-income areas where residents rely more on public transit.

Taking one diesel bus off the road reduces greenhouse gases by about 300,000 pounds a year, she said.

"Air quality is still a vital issue," Ms. Kelleman said. "There is a lot to improve."

The agency also has dozens of maintenance vehicles that run on diesel fuel. It will convert as many as it can to other energy sources, Ms. Kelleman said, but many of them are heavy-duty vehicles that don't have an alternative available.

© 2022 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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