Natural Gas – Conversions, Vehicles and Technology

Transit Fleets Come Clean with Alternative-Fuel Technology

July 2011, Green Fleet Magazine - Feature

by Alex Roman

At a Glance

Several transit agencies have moved toward alt-fuels, including:

● Los Angeles Metro phased out its last diesel buses in January.
● Fort Worth, Texas, fuels its buses with local natural gas.
● Connecticut Transit’s fi ve fuel-cell buses emit only water vapor.
● Santa Monica, Calif.’s natural gas fueling infrastructure allows for revenue generation.
● Southern Nevada’s alt-fuel buses of various types have not encountered major glitches.








Transit agencies around the nation are moving more toward alternative fuels as a way to be environmentally friendly to the communities they serve, as well as reap possible cost-saving benefits.

However, agencies gravitating toward alternative fuels are nothing new, 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 say now, though, that alternative fuels have finally matured, making investment in the technologies less challenging.

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

LA Metro began focusing on cleaning up its bus fleet in the 1980s and now operates an entirely alternative-fuel fleet.
LA Metro began focusing on cleaning up its bus fleet in the 1980s and now operates an entirely alternative-fuel fleet.

LA Metro Greens Most of  Fleet with CNG

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), operates a fleet of 2,228 buses that run on compressed natural gas (CNG), electric, and ­gasoline-electric. 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 CNG, according to the agency.

“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,” said 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 Los Angeles basin a huge issue and the agency growing more aware of its obligation to not contribute more air pollution in the areas it serves, 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,” Leahy said. “Having made this conversion over the past 15 to 20 years, we have now reduced greenhouse gas emissions by around 300,000 lbs. per day.”

Also, when getting rid of its diesels, Leahy said 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 CNG credits and other support, added that the buses have performed very well without any degradation in performance compared to diesel buses. He also said 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 said. “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.

Leahy advised any agency looking into making the switch to alternative fuels, CNG in particular, to reach out to an agency such as Metro and pay a visit to learn from its experiences. 

“Learn from others,” he said. “You don’t have to be on the bleeding edge because we’ve done the work for you.”

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