Wichita buses not ready for natural gas

The four buses the city is poised to purchase might be the last diesel buses it ever buys.

Starting in 2014, Wichita Transit hopes to convert to compressed-natural-gas vehicles to relieve some of the financial strain created by rising diesel fuel costs. Gas prices, along with the loss of some federal grant money, forced the city to increase bus fares from $1.25 a ride to $1.75, effective Sept. 6.

So why not switch to natural gas now?

The fueling stations and other infrastructure are expected to cost more than $1 million, and more research is needed to make sure natural gas is the right fit for Wichita, said Mike Vinson, director of Wichita Transit.

"We don't want to haphazardly move into that," he said. "We need to do this smart."

Instead, the City Council on Tuesday will be asked to approve spending $288,000 in local funds and more than $1.1 million in federal grant money to buy four new buses from California-based Gillig Corp. The purchase is on the council's consent agenda, which is usually approved without discussion. The local money comes from its capital fund, which could not have been used to avoid fare increases.

The four buses the city plans to replace have already exceeded federal guidelines for bus life expectancy, which calls for replacement after seven years or 200,000 miles. The buses are 10 years old and have an average of 211,422 miles, according to the city. Those buses will be used for about one more year before the new ones come in.

Wichita will save money on the purchase because it is piggy-backing onto a contract that Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority has for the 35-foot buses. It's common for transit agencies to buy buses off of larger cities' contracts, Vinson said. It saves Wichita the time and money needed to issue specifications, obtain federal approval and vet incoming bids.

City buses travel about 4 miles on a gallon of fuel. The city buys diesel for about $3.50 a gallon. Vinson said compressed natural gas would probably cost about $1.30 per gallon, which would include a surcharge for the infrastructure.

More cities have recently switched to compressed natural gas buses because of rising diesel costs and the falling price of compressed natural gas buses, which run about $20,000 to $30,000 more than diesel models.

Vinson said the city will likely start buying natural gas buses in 2014, when it plans to buy about 8 to 10 transit vehicles a year for about five years as it replaces its fleet.

"We need to do this pretty carefully" he said. "But we're committed to doing all we can to make that conversion."

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