Electric bus mess ahead for Pittsburgh?

Electric bus mess ahead for Pittsburgh?

Here we go again, folks; another mass-transit project in Pittsburgh fraught with machinations.

We all remember the North Shore Connector project. That’s the light-rail transit line that connects the Golden Triangle with the near North Shore via a tunnel beneath the Allegheny River.

But some might not remember – and we’re sure more than a few conveniently forget – how a major part of that Allegheny County Port Authority project (the “spine-line” extension to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center) was lopped off.

Then the half-billion-dollar price tag remained and planners snapped their braces about bringing the project in on budget.

Incredible.

Now comes what we’ll call “The Son of the North Shore Connector,” what’s formally known as the Bus Rapid Transit project between downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland.

The $195.5 million project – well, at least that was the initial publicly disclosed price – will use quite expensive electric buses with questionable reliability to make the run between Downtown and the university/medical district.

But the Post-Gazette now reports that when the Port Authority made its third application last month for a federal grant to help fund what once was to be more than half the project’s cost, the price tag had ballooned to $249.9 million. That’s $54.4 million more. That’s a 27.8 percent increase.

But here’s the first kicker: The price hike of between a quarter and a third of the original cost “never became public because the agency refused to discuss the application,” the P-G reports.

Here’s the second kicker: The City of Pittsburgh, since that third, secret grant application was filed, has told the Port Authority that it wouldn’t be ready to proceed with full-depth road reconstruction and underground utility installations until 2025, the newspaper says.

“Instead of waiting for those elements, (Port Authority) officials notified the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) that it would decrease the cost of the project to $225 million,” with the Bus Rapid Transit project bowing in 2023, the P-G reports.

But that’s still about a $30 million project cost increase. The Port Authority cites rising costs and contingencies. The FTA will pay up to just under $100 million. Much of the balance will come from authority, city, county and state coffers. All taxpayer dollars, of course.

Now to a possible, if not now probable, kicker No. 3: Two years after “The Son of the North Shore Connector” supposedly commences operation, at least part of the route stands to be torn up for that deferred road and utility work.

Ahem.

And all this said, there remain serious questions, in general, about the efficacy of electric buses — from how long they’ll run on a charge; to the expensive infrastructure and time required for re-charges; to their hill-climbing capabilities; to how they perform in cold weather, etc.

Albuquerque, N.M., Los Angeles, Chicago, Martha’s Vineyard and Asheville, N.C., are five of myriad American cities that have had major – major — problems with electric buses.

As H. Sterling Burnett, a Ph.D. senior fellow on energy and the environment at the Heartland Institute, wrote in the March issue of The American Spectator:

“Shifting from a bus fleet powered by fossil fuels to a battery-powered bus fleet is costly virtue signaling. Cities should steer clear from this failing policy.”

Of course, past being prologue in Pittsburgh, we can only wonder how long it is before the price for the Bus Rapid Transit project escalates again for a still-smaller project, with all those involved appearing on some stage, arm in arm, touting the greatness of this latest Pittsburgh transit advance brought in on budget.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).