Wichita bus plan would replace diesel fuel with natural gas

Wichita Transit Authority mechanic Gabriel Maxwell changes oil on a diesel-powered city bus. (Dec. 27, 2013)
Wichita Transit Authority mechanic Gabriel Maxwell changes oil on a diesel-powered city bus. (Dec. 27, 2013) The Wichita Eagle

Wichita’s bus system could be powered by natural gas instead of diesel fuel next year, if the City Council agrees.

Transit director Steve Spade plans to make a recommendation to the City Council about bus fuel, a key component as the council and the community weigh the future of the city’s embattled bus system.

The city is beginning a multiyear plan to replace its aging fleet of diesel buses. At the same time, it is working through a community-based process to decide the scope and future of the bus program, which advocates say will run out of money in a little more than a year without new funding.

On the surface, Spade’s recommendation appears obvious: The city paid $3.76 a gallon for diesel to run the buses this month; compressed natural gas, or CNG, runs about $1.20 to $1.50 a gallon.

Natural gas – in compressed and liquefied form – fuels about 6,000 buses in transit fleets across the country, according to the Web site, operated by the largest supplier of natural gas for transportation.

Some of the systems using natural gas buses include LA Metro in Los Angeles, Metro RTA in Akron, Ohio, and TransLink in Vancouver, B.C. – along with Spade’s old transit system in Chapel Hill, N.C., which runs hybrid buses. The vast majority of buses continue to use diesel.

The future of bus power in Wichita could be complicated by cost: The city’s transit facility would require major improvements – about $200,000 to modify buildings, primarily for safety reasons, and $2 million to build natural gas fueling stations. Those costs would slice the average annual savings with natural gas buses to around $300,000 a year over time, Spade said.

Spade and the city’s consultant, Missouri-based Small Aero Engineering, are in the middle of a detailed study about the potential conversion.

“It’s a really big decision,” Spade said last week. “We only have part of the information right now, but we know that there are two big reasons to make the change – money savings and environmental emissions considerations.”

The bus replacement has begun with diesel-engine vehicles that could be converted to natural gas if the City Council decides to proceed.

“What we do know is that CNG is a viable thing, and other transit systems and truckers are making the conversion,” said Ron Terzian, a volunteer who chairs the city’s transit advisory board. “It’s not cheap, but it pays for itself over some period of time.”

Council member Jeff Longwell led the drive for a CNG study. He hopes that Spade and the consultant can settle on an economically viable transition to CNG buses.

“Obviously, one of the major start-up costs are your fueling stations,” he said. “I’ve had a meeting with some of our area school districts, thinking we might be able to team up on CNG. If we could share these stations with school districts, and maybe other organizations, it just makes financial sense to take a hard look at it because it lowers your infrastructure costs.”

Spade and the consultant still have a lot of ground to cover.

“It’s critical, I think, that the council have the information to make a long-term decision, not a short-term one,” Spade said. “I think that maybe my greatest fear is that down the road, diesel will cost what natural gas does and vice versa.”

So consultants are working on a customer satisfaction survey of sorts: What cities use CNG buses and why do they like them; what cities backed away from natural gas and why; how reliable are the CNG buses; and what percentage of municipal transit systems use alternative fuels and how does that compare to diesel use?

“It’s important that we get both sides of natural gas before we make a decision,” Spade said.

Natural gas-fueled buses are a little bit more costly off the assembly line – about $450,000 each, compared with $400,000 for a new diesel bus, Spade said. But that’s cheap compared to hybrid buses, which are fueled by electricity up to 30 mph before the diesel begins powering the engine, at $600,000.

The hybrids are fuel mileage warriors, comparatively speaking, averaging 5.7 miles per gallon, as opposed to the 3.6 miles per gallon for diesel buses. CNG buses equate to around 6 mpg.

“The hybrids are probably off the table based on cost,” Spade said. “We’ll leave them there, as we sort through our options, but it’s an expensive replacement for sure.”

Spade has not set a date in 2014 for his recommendation to the council recommendation.

“We’re going to make sure that we present the council really good, complete information on both topics – the possible savings and the environmental concerns,” he said.

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