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CityBus Gambles On Gas, Both Compressed And Liquid

Stan Jastrzebski

High overhead CityBus’s Lafayette headquarters tower three wind turbines, which whir almost melodically on this blustery winter day.

They’re the most visible sign of the corporation’s push to be more environmentally friendly.

But on the ground, there’s a different whirring sound that foretells of the newest such effort -- a generator helps run power tools and a radio playing country music as half a dozen workmen install a natural gas pumping station.

In the spring, two such pumps will start filling the tanks of new machines CityBus is buying at a cost of about $450,000 apiece.

Add that to the $3 million cost to install the compressed natural gas facilities and it’s a sizable outlay. But CityBus CEO Marty Sennett says it’s a move his company needed to make in order to have enough money to stay in business.

“We decided we had to find ways to save operating dollars and reinvest them to keep the service on the street,” Sennett says. “And one of the ways we could do this was by cutting our fuel costs. And CNG had the most promising technology and availability to accomplish that goal.”

But that was before the recent downturn in the cost of a barrel of oil that’s led to the lowest prices at the pump in years.

For the CNG pumps to make sense economically, they have to represent a significant cost savings for CityBus versus buying diesel fuel. A study by Purdue economist Wally Tyner and his students found that one way to make the numbers work is to sell the natural gas to other customers.

West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis says his city might be a customer in the short term.

“We have modified some of our trash trucks to operate on natural gas. And our hope is to expand that to our entire fleet someday.”

But while the city can spend about $20,000 to retrofit a trash truck to run on CNG, it costs hundreds of thousands to buy new trucks that can – and that’s money the city doesn’t have. What’s more, Dennis says, it’d be more economical for the city in the long run to have its own filling stations – which would hurt CityBus’s economic model. And the mayor says that’s if CNG trash trucks are even feasible.

“One of our bigger concerns is how it operates in cold weather. The warm-up time. And those – the garbage trucks – there’s a lot more going on on those vehicles than just the motor running and moving forward or in reverse," Dennis says. "There’s a lot more equipment that’s operated off the engine and whatnot. So we’ve committed – I think we’re going to do two – and we’ll see how that works.”

It’s worth noting here that CityBus could have gone with other technology. The city of Indianapolis’s bus system, IndyGo, recently received a federal grant just like CityBus did, but IndyGo elected to move toward electric technology.

IndyGo spokesman Bryan Luellen says that largely happened because of an executive order from Mayor Greg Ballard to make the city’s whole fleet electric by the year 2020.

IndyGo has installed solar panels on its building and will rely on batteries to help power its buses. But he says the new hybrid buses IndyGo is trotting out are vastly more efficient than CNG-powered models, and for about the same cost.

“The fuel efficiency will be equivalent to about 16 miles a gallon," Luellen says. "So right now, a regular diesel bus is about four miles a gallon. I have no idea what compressed natural gas gets.”

But CityBus Maintenance Manager George Turner does. In an e-mail, Turner says the fuel efficiency for a CNG powered bus can be slightly less than its diesel counterpart. Turner confirms Luellen’s estimate that a typical diesel bus gets four miles to the gallon. A CNG bus, he says, should average 3.7.

Back outside CityBus’s headquarters, two workers use a scissor lift and a cordless drill to attach a metal ring to the overhang of one of the new fuel stations.

The efficiency of these stations is another factor CityBus CEO Marty Sennett is counting on. He needs the system to operate with a minimum of downtime, especially if gas prices stay relatively low. He’s projecting a lower maintenance and replacement cost for his CNG buses over time and plans to reap savings from that.

“You don’t have some of the mechanical problems that you have with a hybrid bus with the CNG vehicle,” he says.

Sennett says if CityBus’s projections hold, the savings the buses reap for the company could pay for all the installation costs within ten years.  He couldn’t say if there would be corresponding fare hikes to cover any part of the cost, and no one can say what the vanguard of mass transit technology will be when CityBus pays off its debt.

For now, rolling out new tech remains a gamble. None of the available technologies is without its pitfalls. While the environment might seem to be a short-term winner from the use of less-polluting technologies like CNG and electricity, it’s still unclear that going all-in on today’s new technology will help any of the bus companies stay in business in the long term.

And if the companies stall out by the side of the road and the one-time bus commuters are forced to use their cars too, even the planet loses.

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