December 19, 2013 By Christopher O'Donnell, McClatchy News Service
Riding the bus has always meant a hands-free commute.
So why not use that time for a must-have item on eBay, or catching up on email before you get to the office?
That will soon be an option as the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority plans to add free wireless Internet service to all of its 188 buses in the next six months. The move follows a successful pilot of a free Wi-Fi program on 10 buses during the past few weeks.
Not to be outdone, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority plans to look into installing Wi-Fi on HART buses and has set a target date of later in 2014, HART spokeswoman Sandra Morrison said.
Smartphones already provide access to the Internet from almost anywhere, including buses. But Wi-Fi access typically will mean Internet pages will load faster, and it will allow free access to the web for riders whose service plans limit how much data they can download. It also will allow riders to use tablet computers and laptops while they sit in traffic.
PSTA's pilot program put Wi-Fi on four regular routes, in addition to the Suncoast Beach Trolley and Route 100X, which runs from the Gateway Mall across the Gandy Bridge to Tampa. A notice posted inside the buses informs riders that there is free Wi-Fi available.
With reaction from riders largely positive, the agency plans to spend about $200,000 adding wirelesss networks to the rest of its fleet, PSTA CEO Brad Miller said. The agency also must pay $100,000 a year to a wireless network provider.
"This is one of the things we want to provide to our customers," Miller said. "So far it's gone very, very well." Making buses more attractive to commuters could boost support for the Greenlight Pinellas plan to raise sales tax by one cent to help pay for a 65 percent expansion of bus services and the development of a light-rail network and rapid bus transit, with traffic lanes dedicated to bus travel.
The sales tax, which would bring in roughly $130 million a year, would replace the $30 million in property taxes county residents pay. The issue will go before voters in a referendum on Nov. 4
"With The launch of Greenlight Pinellas, we will put the amenities on the buses that will make the commute more productive and more worthwhile," said St. Petersburg City Council Member Wengay Newton, who sits on PSTA's governing board.
Other transit agencies already have installed Wi-Fi on some bus routes, including Sarasota County, which provided wireless Internet service on express bus routes in March.
"The feedback is positive from the community," said Jamie Carson, a spokesperson for Sarasota County, although the county could not provide statistics on how many passengers use the wireless service.
Computer technology and the tracking of buses by GPS already has changed the riding experience.
In Pinellas, a PSTA Real-Time Bus Information system gives riders up-to-the-minute information about how long they will have to wait for the next bus via websites and directly to mobile phones.
A similar system for HART riders called OneBusAway was launched in August.
PSTA leaders Wednesday also announced the purchase of eight new diesel-electric hybrid buses. Each 40-foot bus costs $600,000, roughly $200,000 more than a conventional diesel bus.
With the bus using over 40 percent less fuel than a conventional bus, savings in diesel and maintenance are expected to make the lifetime costs of the bus equal to a diesel bus. The hybrid buses lower emissions by at least 90 percent, according to PSTA.
"PSTA voted to stick with hydro-electric buses so we can be a leader for clean, sustainable energy for Pinellas County," Miller said.
(c) 2013 the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.)