METRO Looking into Natural-Gas Powered Buses

METRO is considering whether to add natural gas-fueled buses to its fleet. The transit agency is partnering with Austin and the Texas Transportation Institute to explore its options for natural gas. Wendy Siegle reports.
Right now, METRO operates around 1250 buses. More than a quarter of them are diesel-electric hybrids. The question is whether it would make sense to diversify the fleet with other kinds of alternative technologies. George Greanias is METRO’s president and CEO:

“One thing that’s happened is, all these technologies have come closer together in terms of their environmental impact. They all work better in terms of keeping the environment as pristine as possible.”

Greanias says the study will help determine what the overall cost will be for operating and maintaining a bus that runs on compressed natural gas, commonly referred to as CNG.

“Cost factors for the fuel for a CNG is one of the big questions. Can we control the cost factor better with a CNG vehicle? But on the other side of the coin, there’s also significant infrastructure up front that you have to use with CNG technology.”

METRO tested natural gas buses a decade ago, but found it was too costly for the agency. Back then, the fleet had four CNG buses. They were converted into diesel-electric hybrids in 2002. But the technology has advanced a lot since then, which why METRO is taking another look.

Greanias says, in addition to cost, METRO will have to weigh the environmental benefits of CNG against other fuels, such as the hybrid technology that the agency has already adopted. METRO will also have to decide if it would be best to use the same technology across the entire fleet, or if it would work to mix it up a bit.

“Right now we’ve been moving in a single direction. As we go forward, will we want to expand that and have one or two or three different options, which raise operational questions and maintenance questions.”

METRO board member Christof Spieler says with decisions like this, it’s important for the agency not to rush into anything.

“When we’re buying a new bus it’s not like buying a new car. This is a 12 year commitment; we want to keep these buses on the road. So when we’re making a decision now it’s going to have ramifications for a long time to come.”

Transit agencies across the country have been switching to CNG technology over the last ten years or so. Many cite the rising price of oil as an incentive for the shift. In Los Angeles, nearly 100 percent of its bus fleet runs on natural gas-powered vehicles. Transit officials there estimate that ditching diesel-fueled buses has slashed nearly 300,000 pounds of CO2 emissions per day. Other major cities, such as Chicago, are also considering adding CNG buses to their systems.

METRO expects to have the results of the natural gas study by autumn.