Prove your humanity

This story comes from our partner, 90.5 WESA.

The chugging diesel sigh of a stopped bus could soon fade to a quiet electric hum at Pittsburgh intersections. By 2045, the buses of Pittsburgh will produce net zero carbon emissions, according to the first-ever climate plan from Pittsburgh Regional Transit.

The agency plans to reduce the 104.5 million tons of carbon emissions it produces each year by expanding its electric bus fleet, purchasing light rail cars that use less electricity and switching to solar power to run their buildings.

But the main goal is to get more people to ride buses with a twofold aim of reducing carbon emissions as well as avoiding driving off the “fiscal cliff” PRT fears is on the horizon if that doesn’t happen.

“I think that the fleet transition is probably one of the biggest, boldest actions in the plan,” said Bethani Cameron, deputy director at Mobilify, a Pittsburgh-based transportation advocacy group. “But of course, the number one priority is to grow the ridership, and that’s foundational. That is essentially the number one thing we need to do in the region.”

People in Pittsburgh and across the country stepped off the bus when the pandemic hit and have been slow to get back on board. For example, the average transit ridership in the U.S. for the last week of February was 79% of what it was for that week in 2020, according to data from the American Public Transportation Association. Pittsburgh’s ridership only rebounded back to 64% of its pre-pandemic level for that week. And so far this year, fewer Pittsburghers have taken transit than in 2023, according to Pittsburgh Regional Transit data.

The agency wants to grow their ridership by 5% by 2028 — taking thousands of pollution-spewing cars off the roads during a morning commute and offsetting its bus and light rail emissions.

One way is by redesigning their bus lines to expand service in the neighborhoods that have the most transit riders and fewest car owners, while linking some suburban communities to downtown. PRT officials are also working on revising their fare programs and developing a high-capacity Bus Rapid Transit system between Oakland and Downtown, among other ideas.

“Growing ridership, getting more people in transit, that’s our key,” said Derek Dauphin, director of planning and service development at Pittsburgh Regional Transit. “But this plan is an effort to also show people that we can reduce our emissions ourselves and show some leadership.”

Buses are the agency’s biggest source of emissions, and they come with tight oversight.

“How long we keep our buses is highly regulated,” said Adam Brandolph, deputy chief communications officer at Pittsburgh Regional Transit. “That sort of sets a little bit of a speed on our transition of our fleet. But the funds available are greater, honestly, for electric vehicles than they are for diesel vehicles at this point.”

A bumpy road ahead

It could take awhile to replace all 729 diesel buses with electric ones. Right now, the agency has nine riding around town with 14 more on the way. But there’s only a few companies building electric buses and these companies have had “fits and starts” coming up to speed with the new technology, according to Brandolph.

The maintenance transition has its own growing pains. Their garages don’t have enough charging stations or even room to accommodate them. Mechanics have to transition from looking at the thousands of moving parts of a diesel bus motor to a stationary electric one.

In the next few months, the agency hopes to borrow a bus that’s powered by a hydrogen fuel cell and study renewable diesel fuel to see if these technologies are a good fit for the fleet.

A climate action plan, it’s not just decreasing people using personal vehicles,” Cameron said. “It creates equity by allowing folks freedom to move around and access educational opportunities, recreational opportunities, social opportunities. But it’s really going to come down to funding.”

Federal pandemic relief money dries up this year and the agency needs more than the local tax base to stay afloat. PRT’s 2024 budget warned that the agency “will face a ‘fiscal cliff’ in the future if ridership doesn’t rebound to pre-pandemic levels or other sources of subsidy are identified to continue current service levels.” Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro put an additional $282 million in the state’s budget for public transit this year — the first increase in more than a decade — but it faces tough odds in the state senate.
Just having a climate plan enables the agency to go after more money and stay competitive for current funding, according to Dauphin. Government funding bodies look for detailed information on a transit agency’s greenhouse gas emissions and choose to fund those that emit less. And then there’s new funding opportunities that focus on sustainability, like an EPA grant that would extend the hydrogen bus pilot project.
The Climate Action Plan “is a roadmap,” Dauphin said. “But we really do think it’s the tool to get funding to continue to grow.”