Even with the EPA facing a crippling slash in funding as part of the House of Representatives' attempts to cut the nation's budget, transit agencies around the nation are moving more and more toward alternative fuels as a way to be environmentally friendly to the communities they serve, as well as reap possible cost-saving benefits.

Agencies gravitating toward alternative fuels are nothing new, however, with some finding themselves out in front on the so-called "bleeding edge" of many of these fuels since the early 1990s. Those early-adopting agencies will tell you now, though, that alternative fuels have finally matured, making investment in the technologies less challenging.

METRO Magazine spoke to some transit agencies currently using alternative fuels in their bus fleets — ranging from natural gas to hydrogen to hybrids - about their programs and experiences when making the green-friendly leap away from traditional diesel fuel.  

Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro)

In January, Metro retired the last of its diesel buses and became the "first major transit agency in the world to operate only alternative clean-fueled buses," the majority of which are compressed natural gas (CNG).

"The local community, environmental groups and labor groups were all very pleased with it. To me, it was pretty strange. When I was a bus operator, we ran all diesels, so it's kind of odd not to have any of them now," says Metro CEO Art Leahy. "Using alternative fuels is good for the environment, but it also helps wean America from dependence on foreign fuel." 

With smog in the L.A. basin a huge issue and the agency growing more aware of its obligation to not contribute more air pollution in the areas it served, Metro began focusing on cleaning up its bus fleet in the 1980s. The agency began using methanol buses in the early '90s, which in the long run proved to be too corrosive for bus engines. After also experimenting with ethanol and propane, Metro eventually decided to go with CNG.

"When we decided to move toward alternative fuels, we were ahead of both the EPA and CARB (California Air Resources Board). Diesel buses had cleaned up significantly, but the board was willing to stay on this path because they wanted to clean up the air," he says. "Having made this conversion over the past 15 to 20 years, we have now reduced greenhouse gas emissions by around 300,000 pounds per day." 

Also, when getting rid of its diesels, Leahy says Metro permanently disabled the engines so nobody could buy the buses and continue to use them to pollute the area.

Leahy, who credits the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) for making Metro's clean-air bus fleet possible with their CNG credits and other support, adds that the buses have performed very well without any degradation in performance compared to diesel buses. He also says that while the cost for the buses is more expensive, Metro pays less for fuel and is proud of its contribution toward Los Angeles' cleaner air.

The road to Metro's success wasn't easy, however, since at the beginning of its program CNG use was in its early stages.

"I was chief operating officer at the time we began using CNG, and we were really worried how on earth we were going to fuel 2,000 buses and still make it on time for rollout. Today, the worries have all become moot," Leahy says. "It's important to know this conversion occurred over a long period of time. The first five or six years were the most difficult." 

Metro's clean-air bus fleet is just one aspect of its green program, which also includes widespread use of solar panels at bus maintenance facilities and other energy saving devices to cut energy costs; recycling; and building and retrofitting new transit facilities with sustainable materials and practices. 

Installation of solar panels, LED lights and other energy saving features as well as recycling save Metro more than $1 million annually in operating costs, according to the agency. The solar panels alone reduced Metro's carbon footprint by 16,500 metric tons in 2010, the equivalent of removing 3,200 private cars from Los Angeles area streets and freeways.

Leahy advises any agency looking into making the switch to alternative fuels, in general, and, specifically to CNG, to reach out to an agency like Metro and pay a visit to learn from their experiences.  

"Learn from others," he says. "You don't have to be on the bleeding edge, because we've done the work for you."

Fort Worth Transportation Authority (The T)

Like Metro, The T's move toward alternative fuels began in the '80s, when the Texas' State Legislature and Department of Transportation started encouraging local transit systems to look at alternative fuels, including natural gas.

"The T began looking into alternative fuels, with sort of an understanding that we have a lot of natural gas here in Texas," says The T's President/Executive Director Dick Ruddell. "Eventually, we decided that natural gas would be the best move for us and ordered our first CNG bus in 1991." 

The T's move toward CNG took a natural progression, with the authority gradually purchasing buses as older buses reached retirement age. The whole process took most of the '90s, with The T retiring its last diesel bus around 2000. 

"[With] every purchase, it seemed the technology just got better and better," says Ruddell. "By the time we reached the 2000s, the technology really came of age."  

Like Leahy, Ruddell explains that The T's learning curve in the beginning was huge, since the range of CNG-powered buses was very short at the time and there were still issues with how to set up the compressors that compressed the fuel. 

"Those two issues probably are the reason why a lot of systems back in the 90s tried natural gas then gave up on it," he says.

Now after figuring out the learning curve, The T has an advanced and well-developed compressor station with four compressors operating at all times and an extra available in case one is down for maintenance and, with the technology maturing, CNG buses have a comparable range to their diesel predecessors, Ruddell explains. He also adds that getting his maintenance staff up to speed through training provides a knowledgeable source that is always on hand should issues arise.

Besides lowering its environmental footprint due to the lower emissions, Ruddell says the authority has experienced some additional benefits through the use of CNG.

"The maintenance department reports that oil change and engine servicing intervals have been extended by 80 percent. And, when we do overhaul these engines, they are cleaner inside than they would be if we were still operating diesels because CNG is a cleaner burning fuel," he says. "Things like this are kind of internal and kind of in the weeds out there, but they are certainly advantages to operating a CNG fleet."

While the authority is committed to CNG down the road and has made all the necessary infrastructure investments to prove it, such as the fueling stations, Ruddell says The T is not so committed that it won't look at other alternative fuels.

"I think other and better fuels will come along, so we very much are interested in new alternative fuels as they are developed and tried," he says. 

For agencies interested in exploring alternative fuels such as CNG, Ruddell advises that they go out to visit authorities such as The T, so that they understand how the fuels work, the benefits and the financial investment it takes to build the infrastructure to support usage. For those looking into natural gas, he also encourages joining the Transit Natural Gas Coalition, where those interested can learn more from both users and suppliers. 


Connecticut Transit (CTTransit)

CTTransit first started researching the use of alternative fuels in the early '90s as a way to help promote good vehicle emissions in the communities where the agency operates.

In 2001, CTTransit contracted with the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering to do an analysis of all the different bus technologies, because it wanted to discover what would work best for its applications, which led to the use of several different alternatives including biodiesel — the agency currently uses a 5 percent mix - ultra-low sulfur diesel and diesel particulate filters.

"We were also one of the first in the country to get hybrid buses in 2003 as part of what was called the 'Allison Preview Program,'" explains Stephen Warren, assistant GM, maintenance services, at CTTransit. "We are now expanding our hybrid program by placing 14 New Flyer Excelsior 40-foot hybrids into service and taking delivery of 10 new Nova Artic 60-foot hybrids this summer." 

Perhaps CTTransit's biggest alternative-fuel initiative, though, began in 2007, when it began operating a 40-foot Van Hool equipped with a UTC Power hydrogen fuel-cell. Since then, the agency has added four more hydrogen buses and plans to add a sixth in the next year or so. 

Fuel-cell buses run on hydrogen and produce no harmful tailpipe emissions, emitting only water vapor. The new buses, part of the FTA's national Fuel Cell Bus Program, establish Hartford as a leader in adopting fuel-cell technology to power transit buses. Only the Greater Oakland/San Francisco, Calif., has a larger fuel-cell bus fleet in the U.S., according to the agency.

"Because of the federal grants, none of these last four buses cost us anything," says Warren. "Our contribution has been the labor that we put into them and the modifications that we've had to make to our infrastructure."

Key changes to the newer hydrogen-powered buses include a more advanced lithium-ion battery system and a more durable fuel-cell power plant. The new model 40-foot Van Hool transit buses are also lighter than the earlier generation fuel-cell bus, which continues to operate on various routes in Greater Hartford. 

"The first bus we had ran well, when it did run. When it didn't run, 90 percent of the problem was due to what was called Zebra batteries," says Warren. "It was a battery that was probably the wrong design for this type of application. Now, with the new lithium-ion batteries, we've had no major problems whatsoever."

CTTransit had to make several modifications to its existing garage to store the hydrogen vehicles, such as moving duct work so a small amount of air was always blowing on the buses and installing hydrogen detectors, and the hydrogen fuel-cell buses are switched to an all-electric mode when inside the garage, significantly lowering the possibility of hydrogen leaks. The agency is currently building a new garage to store its fuel-cell buses. It also plans to install a hydrogen fueling station on-site that will use a green, electrolyzing process, with some of its buses continuing to refuel at a hydrogen station at UTC Power's headquarters in South Windsor, Conn.

After surveying both its drivers and customers, CTTransit found that drivers love the acceleration of the bus and passengers enjoyed the quiet, smooth and vibration-free ride. Both, however, rated the buses lack of emissions and environmental impact or, lack thereof, as the aspects they liked best. The buses have also become stars in the community.

"The buses are unbelievably popular and must have been on TV a couple hundred times at this point," he says. "Also, whenever there's a major event, the organizers want a hydrogen fuel-cell bus to be there."

Since most of the alternative fuels on the market have been well tested, Warren adds that having a dedicated project manager that understands there will be ups and downs is very important when instituting a program at your agency.

City of Santa Monica, Calif. (Big Blue Bus)

Big Blue Bus' move toward alternative fuels came as part of the City Council's adoption of a sustainable cities program that identified 10 different areas of focus, including public transportation. The program was so ahead of its time that the United Nations is now using it as a model for other cities around the world.

"Really, the city's direction for us to move toward alternative fuels actually drove our decision even before the state mandated that we choose either clean diesel or an alternative-fuel path," explains Stephanie Negriff, Big Blue's director of transit services.

In 2002, Big Blue started its alternative-fuel program with liquefied natural gas (LNG) buses from North American Bus Industries (NABI). Before that, though, Big Blue had to install a fueling station on-site, which it started work on the previous year.

"We had to build the entire infrastructure for natural gas, so that was about a $15 million investment," explains Negriff. "But, now, we have a state-of-the-art fueling station, which also allows us the opportunity to generate additional revenue by fueling other public fleets, and we're actually working on an upgrade that would allow us to fuel natural gas automobiles."

Ralph Merced, Big Blue's maintenance manager adds that the fueling station was also constructed in a manner that it could dispense both LNG and CNG.

The agency is currently phasing out its diesel vehicles and replacing them with alternative-fuel vehicles, expecting to be at about 75 percent complete by the end of this calendar year.          

To help Big Blue reach the 75 percent goal, it awarded a multi-year contract to NABI and issued a Notice to Proceed (NTP) for the purchase of nine 40-foot low-floor CNG buses, with options to purchase an additional 58 buses over a five-year contract period, in July 2010. In September 2010, it exercised an option and issued an NTP with NABI for five 60-BRT CNG articulated vehicles in addition to the 11 that were previously on order. All 16 BRT vehicles are scheduled to be delivered by mid-2011.      

"If we exercise all the options we have with NABI, we should be running an all-alternative fuel fleet by 2014," says Negriff.       

Negriff adds that the City's move toward alternative fuels sends a strong message to the community that it values sustainability. 

"We have a lot of loyal transit users. But, to really advance use of public transportation and attract and gain new riders, identifying ourselves as a transit system that is out in front in the areas of clean air and environmental policy really helps show that we are walking the walk," says Negriff.       

Aside from cleaner emissions, Big Blue Bus is spending significantly less on fuel thanks in part to a 50-cent-per-gallon federal fuel tax credit, which results in an approximate $1.5 million annual savings.

"Keep in mind that is with about 65 percent of our fuel being natural gas. As we convert to 100 percent natural gas, that credit will go up," says Negriff. "However, the fuel tax credit is something that is only extended through the end of this year, so we're working to ensure that it remains a part of any future transportation authorization bill that may occur."


Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (RTC)

Beginning in 2001, the RTC's board began focusing on sustainability and air quality by focusing on both alternative fuels and fuel economy. The agency kicked off its jump to alternative fuels in 2001 with the purchase of seven CNG buses.

"They performed better than expected, so from there we added an additional 45 CNG vehicles to our fixed-route fleet," says Sandy Stanko, RTC's director of transit services, who adds that the agency focuses its purchasing decisions on determining which type of vehicle best fits the operating conditions. 

That focus has led to the purchase of 130 double-decker coaches running on B5 biodiesel, because it accommodated more passengers, thus providing a savings in fuel costs. The agency also chose to run hybrid diesel-electric vehicles with both ISE Corp. and Allison propulsion systems, including its Wright Group Streetcar RTV vehicles, for its BRT routes because the hybrid propulsion systems, with their regenerative braking, were ideal for the application. 

Rudy Long, vehicle maintenance coordinator at the RTC, says that the use of all these different types of alternative propulsion systems has gone off with only minor hitches.

"With our hybrid vehicle purchases, the manufacturers came in and provided on-site training, so if we had any obstacles our technicians were able to take care of them," he says. "Even with the Wright buses being a whole new type of vehicle, we only had a couple of small hurdles getting started, but they have really performed great. We've also had minimal issues with our CNG vehicles."  

Stanko adds that another small challenge during any alternative-fuel rollout has been keeping drivers up to speed.

"Probably one of the biggest areas we focused on when we introduced some of new technologies was driver training and behavior," she explains. "We want make sure that we are all working together to achieve maximum fuel economy, so we focused on things such as idling, braking, and making sure the drivers understood the differences between hybrid and diesel vehicles." 

Stanko and Long report that the RTC is experiencing increased fuel mileage from both its hybrid and CNG vehicles. The agency also plans on expanding its alternative-fuel program by introducing New Flyer gasoline-electric hybrids by end of this year, using ARRA funds, however, Stanko adds that which alternative fuel it plans on using down the road is still unclear.

"We still have probably about 60 vehicles scheduled to be replaced and will probably continue to look at both hybrid and CNG vehicles," she says. "We just haven't really made up our minds at this point."             

Long says knowing what you're trying to achieve with the vehicle purchase is key, stressing that agencies must first determine what type of application the vehicles will be used.    

"Is the bus you are using going to be for residential or highway use?" he asks. "If it is highway, you may see more benefits with CNG, but residential areas would benefit from hybrids because of the regenerative braking, based on our experience."