New facility, hydrogen fuel cell pilot program coming to RTS

(provided file photo)

The Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority (RGRTA) will receive $23 million in federal funding for two programs.

A $16 million allotment will go towards the creation of a new facility for the paratransit service, RTS Access, and just over $7 million will be used to launch the Clean Hydrogen Fuel Cell Pilot Program.

The funding — secured by efforts of Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Congressman Joe Morelle — comes from U.S. Department of Transportation Low and No Emission Vehicle Grant Program.

The new access facility will replace an aging, outdated building that has reached its capacity and is inefficient, legislators say. The new building will house over 100 employees and the 50-plus bus fleet as well as providing vehicle maintenance and storage.

RTS will be one of the first transit systems to launch the hydrogen fuel cell bus pilot. Hydrogen fuel cell buses produce zero emissions, have longer ranger and shorter refueling time than battery-electric buses, and are said to generally perform better in colder weather.

“Rochester just got put in the fast lane for a transportation revolution and this massive federal boost is going accelerate RGRTA to achieve a fully zero-emission bus fleet by 2035,” Schumer said in a news release. “This funding will create a state of the art operational hub for RGRTA’s paratransit service and its hundreds of employees that will help streamline service, make sure buses are on time, and now provide riders with a new hydrogen powered bus ride that will help the environment at every stop along the way.”

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Airports, transit systems receive federal funding

Upstate New York airports and transit systems will share more than $480 million in the newest COVID relief package, including several in the Rochester and Finger Lakes regions.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said this week that Upstate airports will receive more than $84 million, while transit systems will receive nearly $396 million to help transportation systems keep their wheels turning while the state recovers from the pandemic.

“Air travel and public transportation are among the most severely impacted industries amid the pandemic, and both are vital to the connectivity and success of the upstate economy,” Schumer said in a statement. “Airports and transit systems serve important functions in their communities, especially in more rural areas, connecting communities and residents and allowing for economic opportunities to cruise in. As majority leader, I was proud to make transportation funding a priority and the American Rescue Plan will deliver this much-needed aid to keep upstate residents connected. Help is on the way that will put Upstate New York’s transportation on the road to recovery.”

In the Rochester area, the Frederick Douglass Greater Rochester International Airport will receive roughly $12 million, while Finger Lakes Regional Airport, Dansville Municipal Airport, Genesee County Airport and Canandaigua Airport will receive $32,000 each.

Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority will receive $45.4 million in funding.

Schumer noted that the total funding will be allocated by the Department of Transportation and includes $12.5 million for the state DOT Rural 5311 program, which aims to support public transportation in areas with populations of fewer than 50,000 people. The funds may be used for capital and operating assistance grants to local public bodies, tribes and operators of intercity bus services in rural areas.

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Reimagine RTS to roll out May 17

Rochester’s Regional Transit Service will launch its long-awaited Reimagine RTS transit system design on May 17. The plan originally was scheduled to be implemented on June 29 last year but was postponed due to COVID-19.

Bill Carpenter
Bill Carpenter

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic delayed Reimagine RTS, we have been adjusting our plans and working to find the right time to launch the new system. I am pleased to announce that our customers will get to experience their new transit system on May 17, 2021,” RTS CEO Bill Carpenter said in a statement. “The design of the reimagined transit system was based on the hard work of the RTS team and the input of more than 12,000 people through surveys and more than 200 meetings and events throughout the community. The new system will be more frequent, reliable and connected and we are excited to bring it to life for our customers.”

Carpenter and his team first announced plans to redesign Rochester’s transit system in September 2017. At the time, the public transit system in Monroe County had remained the same for decades, designed when downtown Rochester was the center of the community.

In June 2019, the Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority board of commissioners unanimously voted in favor of the final plan for the Reimagine RTS transit system redesign, as well as the June 2020 rollout.

Details of the reimagined transit system are included in the Reimagine RTS Final Recommendation Report, available online. The new system includes seven Community Mobility Zones, or CMZ, as well as a new on-demand service and improved frequencies and routes.

The new transit system will have 10 routes with a frequency of every 15 minutes, while 20 routes will have buses available every 30 minutes.

“I thank the team at RTS for their continued work on this project and I thank our customers for their patience and understanding as we have worked together to navigate the pandemic,” Carpenter said.

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Nearly $20 million available to electrify transit, school buses

New York state will offer a series of initiatives to increase the number of electric buses statewide as part of its efforts to mitigate climate change and boost access to clean transportation in underserved communities. The effort includes more than $16 million in incentives for the expansion of electric bus usage among public transportation authorities and $2.5 million for school bus operators to purchase cleaner forms of transportation.

“Electrifying transit and school buses at scale is an important step in our fight against climate change and is essential in helping us reach our ambitious goals to create a greener New York state,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement last week. “Through these initiatives, bus operators will now have the support and resources they need to modernize their fleets, reduce emissions and ensure underserved communities have cleaner public transit options as we work to further reduce our carbon footprint.”

Under the New York Truck Voucher Incentive Program, $16.4 million in Volkswagen settlement funding will be made available to five of the largest public transit operators in the state, including the Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority, to facilitate their fleets’ transition towards 100 percent zero-emission fleets by 2035, a goal Cuomo announced in his 2020 State of the State Address.

Through the program, purchasers of new, zero-emissions all-electric transit buses are eligible to have 100 percent of the incremental vehicle cost covered on the condition that the buses are housed at bus depots or operate on routes located within a half-mile of a disadvantaged community.

The funding builds on the NYTVIP expansion announced early last year. Combined, the five transit operators run more than 1,300 buses.

To provide further support, New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and the New York Power Authority (NYPA) have reached an agreement that includes more than $1 million in funding for a new program to help the five upstate and suburban transit operators develop plans to convert to all-electric transit buses.

“By working with regional transit and school bus fleet operators we are removing dirty, polluting vehicles from our roadways and helping communities eliminate the health and environmental risks from carbon emissions,” said Doreen Harris, acting president and CEO of NYSERDA and Climate Action Council co-chair. “Investing in all-electric buses and offering transit authorities technical assistance shows the serious commitment that we are making under Gov. Cuomo’s plan to provide access to clean transportation options for all New Yorkers.”

Another $2.5 million also is available through the NYTVIP to school bus operators statewide to support the purchase of cleaner, less polluting buses. Funding will help cover up to 100 percent of incremental costs for all-electric school buses operating near a disadvantaged community. The program reduces the cost to purchase new, clean electric or alternative-fueled buses through point of sale rebates offered through a qualified vendor.

On Dec. 23, the state Office of General Services issued a Request for Information seeking details from manufacturers and dealers about electric and hybrid transit buses currently available in the marketplace. Responses to the RFI, which are due by Jan. 21, will be used to develop a solicitation for electric and hybrid buses with the goal of providing transit authorities with options for purchasing green vehicles for their fleets.

“One of the most impactful strategies to help bridge New York’s nation-leading greenhouse gas emissions goals is through strategic investments in high-quality, high-frequency public transportation services,” said state Department of Transportation Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez. “Electrification of public transportation fleets will build upon the more than 17 million metric tons annually of greenhouse gas emissions that these systems help to avoid.”

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Local agencies part of coalition to increase transit funding

New York State transit budget (Source: New York Public Transit Association)
New York State transit budget (Source: New York Public Transit Association)

Dozens of agencies statewide have launched a coalition to seek funding for public transit.

The New Yorkers for Better Public Transit coalition comprises major transit systems from across the state, including Rochester’s Regional Transit Service, as well as members of the manufacturing, health care and economic development advocacy communities. The coalition is making the case for funding that will allow transit operators to grow with customer demands.

“Whether they live in city centers or rural towns, millions of New Yorkers rely on the services transit operators across New York provide on a daily basis,” said Bill Carpenter, RTS CEO and president of the New York Public Transit Association. “Our partners in the transit community and in other industries recognize transit’s role in regional growth and development. We are excited to partner with them to push for state funding in 2019 that complements the investments the state is making in our communities and cements transit as a key contributor in improving the lives of all New Yorkers.”

More than 9 million people in New York board public transit each weekday, and New Yorkers ride public transit more than 3.6 billion times annually, according to the National Transit Database. Public transit is a vital link for more than 3 million New Yorkers with disabilities.

“When we say transit investment boosts local economies, that’s not just an abstract idea,” said Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “We’re talking about real people’s lives. When riders have access to transit, they can get to school, reach more job opportunities and stay connected to their communities—all without having to rely on a car. If we want to make sure everyone has a chance to succeed, we need to invest in our state’s public transit systems.”

The new coalition’s overarching goals, according to its position paper, is to implement a statewide transit action plan that supports all transit systems and communities throughout the state. Within that goal are four recommendations:

  • Increase funding for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) that services New York City and other downstate areas. Provide long-term, recurring funding for the MTA through a congestion pricing program and other dedicated funding sources to address long-term capital and operating needs.
  • Implement a statewide plan that provides a multiyear investment plan that increases state operating assistance for upstate and downstate transit systems by 50 percent over the next five years, starting with a 10 percent increase in 2019-2020.
  • Continue to revitalize transit infrastructure. Provide $104.5 million in non-MTA transit capital aid as provided in the past two years; increase flexibility of funding.
  • Replace lost revenue to rural transit systems to continue essential services. Provide $5 million in permanent state funding to small urban and rural transit systems impacted by state Department of Health Medicaid transportation changes.

In addition to RTS and the Public Transit Association, the coalition includes the heads of the Capital District Transportation Authority, CENTRO, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and NICE Bus in Nassau County. Other coalition members from the transit community include the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and manufacturer Nova Bus.

Officials noted that transit does more than just bring people to work, school and other destinations; for every $1 invested in transit, $4 is generated in economic returns, and transit can help boost investments in health care, anti-poverty initiatives and education, they said.

“New York is home to more transit riders by far than any other state in the country,” said Denise Richardson, executive director of the General Contractors Association of New York. “Keeping public transportation strong is paramount to our economic health and well-being. All our GCA members are committed to doing just that, and we join with our colleagues around the Empire State to call for strong and reliable revenues that will ensure their continued success in moving millions of New Yorkers every day.”

Others who have joined the initiative include Reinvent Albany, the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, the New York League of Conservation Voters, the Capital Region Chamber, Vision Long Island, Riders Alliance and the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, among others.

“Increasing public funding for transit is one of the best investments New York State government can make to grow the economy, improve quality of life, protect the environment and increase social justice,” Reinvent Albany Executive Director John Kaehny said. “We are proud to be part of this coalition working to make New York better for everyone.”

Coalition officials say increased transit funding will provide more mobility and connections in communities; shorter travel times, improved reliability and greater regional access; support for business growth and jobs; reduced poverty in upstate cities by providing greater access to jobs and training; improved livability; and revitalized downtowns, among other things.

“When considering investments in our community that can help families transition from poverty to prosperity, few can have the impact that greater investment in transit can have,” RMAPI Director Leonard Brock said. “More funding means better transit and better transit means better access to jobs, education and healthcare for those who need it most. If we are truly committed to reducing the rate of poverty in our state, and at the same time growing jobs and strengthening the economy, then we need a significant increase in funding for New York’s public transit system.”

The coalition has set up an online toolkit with information about the role transit plays in communities, as well as a petition to encourage Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature to increase transit funding.

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