City has 18 percent unemployment and an emergency manager
In a city with an unemployment rate near 18 percent and a fiscal situation so bad it requires an emergency manager, the Flint Mass Transportation Authority is trying to buy a hydrogen bus that sells for $2.4 million — more than seven times as much as a traditional bus.
Hydrogen fuel cell buses were as expensive as $3.5 million a few years ago but have dropped in price in the last year, transportation experts said. A typical diesel bus cost about $327,000, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
"We are very interested in this new vehicle and hope to purchase one in the near future," Ed Benning, general manager of the Flint MTA said in an email.
The MTA is requesting that it be able to use federal stimulus funds it was approved for three years ago. In September 2009, Reuters reported that the Mass Transportation Authority would get $2.2 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to buy two zero-emission buses and that the buses would be deployed in 2010.
However, the MTA’s choice to make the buses, Fischer Coachworks, went out of business in 2010.
Benning said the MTA has requested that the stimulus money be made available past the September deadline in which it is set to expire. The Federal Transit Authority is considering the request.
The per-capita earned wages in Flint in 2011 was $3,794 while the city had an unemployment rate of 17.8 percent.
The city is in such poor financial shape that an audit found it broke the law last year when it illegally borrowed from two of its street funds to cover operating expenses. As of June 2012, the city of Flint had a $19.2 million deficit.
Wendell Cox, a transportation consultant from St. Louis who has been a critic of the stimulus spending on public transit, said Flint should buy the traditional less expensive diesel buses and expand service for people in Flint who can't afford cars.
"It's stupid policy," Cox said. "If we are going to subsidize transit, than we should try to get as much transit as we can. That's the problem here. It's just plain extravagance. Imagine what that money would have done if we spread it among the poor transit riders. This is just absolutely unbelievable. Are we trying to do something for the environment? What are one or two buses in Flint going to do for the world?"
Flint's MTA has one operating fuel cell bus that it unveiled in 2012. It leases that vehicle for $1 from United Technologies Corp., on a test basis, according to a story posted on MLive.
Benning said they'd also like to purchase some used hydrogen fuel cell buses along with the new hydrogen bus.