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The board of the Washington, D.C. transit authority for the first time has recommended the purchase of 100 buses fueled by compressed natural gas, a breakthrough hailed by the Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition (NGVC) as part of a growing trend.
The District of Columbia member of the DC, Maryland and Virginia authority lobbied hard for the authorization, which is subject to the board coming up with the extra funding that will be needed to purchase the replacement gas-fired buses.
A staff analysis projected the cost of adding CNG buses, plus the required infrastructure for fueling, maintenance and training to support them, at $13 million more than the cost of replacement diesel buses.
Rich Kolodziej, president of the Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition (NGVC), hailed the action, saying the goal is to replace 25% of the 1,300-bus Washington fleet with CNG vehicles over the next five years. The mayor and city council of the District of Columbia are pushing the transition to combat pollution and a local asthma rate that is more than twice the national average.
Kolodziej sees a growing market for the natural gas-fired vehicles, reaching half a quadrillion Btu by 2010. He pointed out that currently 20% of all transit buses on order across the U.S. are natural gas buses. There are more than 3,000 actually in service. Los Angeles, with one of the worst pollution rates from mobile sources, currently has more than 1,000 natural gas-fired buses.
The resolution passed by the D.C. transit authority calls on staff to identify sources of additional funding and recommend a procurement plan by Nov. 9. Potential funding sources include several federal incentive plans, which have been set up specifically for projects that reduce vehicle pollution. “This is clearly a new policy direction,” said Ray Feldmann, director of media relations for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
Once the funding is set, the transit authority will advertise for suppliers. Feldmann said that could also include third parties that would set up infrastructure and fueling facilities and own and operate the buses. Several cities are using this arrangement, paying on a per diesel gallon equivalent formula. “This definitely is an option we are considering.”
Two companies, Trillium USA, a Salt Lake City-based subsidiary of WestCoast Energy, and Pickens Fuel Corp., of Seal Beach, CA, whose chairman is Boone Pickens, already have contacted D.C. officials, offering to provide full service in exchange for a long-term contract.
Long term, the transit authority sees fuel cells powering the system, “but, that can’t happen for eight to 10 years; our problem is immediate,” Feldmann said.
The Sierra Club, which started its campaign for natural gas buses two years ago with the election of the current mayor and city council, also provided information to the transit staff on the natural gas solution. The D.C. authority was impressed with the experience of a fleet of 24 CNG buses run by suburban Montgomery County, MD, said Sierra Club’s Mark Wenzler.
“Our goal is to have all replacements be natural gas-powered.” Wenzler said he was encouraged by a discussion before the transit authority vote Thursday in which it was pointed out that if it converts one of its own maintenance facilities to servicing CNG vehicles, it would be cost-efficient to have that facility eventually support about 300 buses.
NGVC’s Kolodziej points to an expanding market for CNG, not just for buses, but for private fleets as well. Waste Management Corp., the largest trash hauler in the U.S. with 50,000 trucks, has several hundred CNG trucks on order or on the road, and “is rapidly increasing its CNG fleet.” Also, support for CNG is much broader than it was. “When NGVC first started out its members were mainly utilities. Now, utilities are only about one/third of our membership.” The membership currently includes a broad spectrum of companies. “Some very large companies are interested in this.”
Kolodziej is not concerned that higher natural gas prices will slow the trend. “The cost of fuel is only 25% to 35% of the cost of running the vehicles. Even doubling the price of natural gas would only increase the price at the pump by 30%.”
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