Port Authority rejected for federal grants to expand electric bus network | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Port Authority rejected for federal grants to expand electric bus network

This March, Port Authority of Allegheny County’s first electric buses hit the streets of Pittsburgh. They were heralded as a positive step forward in the push for sustainability and the fight against climate change. (The transportation sector generates the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions of any sector in the U.S.)

Port Authority was hoping to keep that momentum going by adding more electric buses to its fleet, and it applied for some federal grants to fund those efforts.

But those applications were denied, with Pennsylvania-allocated federal funds from the Federal Transit Administration instead going to agencies in Southeastern Pennsylvania for “infrastructure upgrades to support its current battery electric bus fleet,” to the City of Hazleton for new bus maintenance and storage facility, and to Erie County to buy Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) buses.

These rejections come even as President Donald Trump was quick to politicize the federal funds being sent to Erie and Hazleton. He tweeted on Aug. 12, “Huge investments in Hazleton and Erie County to improve transit service and bring an economic boost to these areas!”
Erie County is arguably the most important county in all Pennsylvania for Trump, politically speaking. He carried the county in 2016, and if he doesn’t again in 2020, he will likely lose Pennsylvania, making his path to re-election enormously harder. Luzerne County, which contains Hazleton, is also an important region for Trump to perform in this year.

Not that these funds were awarded purely for political reasons, but highlighting these in a tweet can be seen as advantageous to Trump’s re-election effort.

But Trump needs to do well in Allegheny County, too. And local transit advocacy group Pittsburghers for Public Transit thinks Port Authority missing out on an opportunity to expand its electric bus fleet will not help that cause.

PPT director Laura Wiens says that she doesn’t want to pit regions against one another when it comes to public transit, but notes that every bus fleet in the country should be turning electric at this point. (SEPTA’s grant is to support electric buses, but Hazleton doesn’t mention electric buses, and Erie’s is for new natural-gas buses). Natural-gas buses emit less CO2 than gasoline-powered buses, but they emit more methane, an even more powerful greenhouse gas.

Wiens says Port Authority missing out on electric-bus funding is disappointing because the agency is primed for a successful electric-bus expansion, considering the federal government recently OK’d funds for the Bus Rapid Transit project, which will use electric buses.

“We should build upon that, but if we are not actually getting electric buses, it is wasting that,” said Wiens.

She also notes the Pittsburgh region’s consistently low air-quality ratings and how more electric buses could help combat that issue. “If there is any region that could benefit from less emission, Pittsburgh has a pretty strong case for it,” said Wiens. “We should be prioritizing electric infrastructure over diesel or natural-gas buses.”

Port Authority spokesperson says that the agency applies for several competitive grants each year that are typically put up against dozens of other projects. He rejects any notion that the authority being rejected over others was politically motivated.

“As expected, we are grateful for those grants that we are awarded and disappointed for those that we are not,” said Brandolph in a statement. “Regardless of whether it's for Port Authority or another transit agency, insinuating that these competitive grants are political in nature devalues the merits of the projects they go toward and undermines the hard work that goes into these applications.”

He mentions that Port Authority has been awarded several federal grants since 2019, including the nearly $100 million for the BRT, as well as millions for four electric buses and air quality mitigation efforts, and $682,000 for an FTA pilot program from Transit-Oriented Development.

PPT has some harsher words, however, and Wiens thinks that Trump and Republicans can do more to service the region’s public transit. PPT is calling for the federal government to allocate $32 billion in emergency public transit funding to avoid potential cuts transit agencies will likely have to make thanks to revenue loss due to coronavirus. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Scranton) and other Democrats already support this measure.
“I think we are in a crisis in public transit funding, and the Port Authority is not exempt from that,” said Wiens.

State funding was also not kind to Port Authority’s bus expansion efforts. This fiscal year’s PennDOT Multimodal Transportation Fund Awards didn’t provide any monies to Port Authority, instead opting to help Penn Hills borough pay for some road repairs that are “without ADA compliance and are unsafe for all travel,” and funds to help complete the Harrison Point Silver Lake development project, an area currently only served by one bus route, the P10.

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