Transit Authority Plans Elimination Of Diesel-Powered Buses

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A construction worker at the site of COTA's planned natural gas bus fueling station on McKinley Avenue.(Photo: Tom Borgerding/WOSU)
A construction worker at the site of COTA's planned natural gas bus fueling station on McKinley Avenue.(Photo: Tom Borgerding/WOSU)

The Central Ohio Transit Authority is making a long term bet on stable prices for natural gas. In 2013, COTA will begin replacing its diesel-powered bus fleet with new coaches powered by compressed natural gas.

Behind COTA’s McKinley Avenue bus garage, workers are installing new pipelines and pumps. Not diesel, not gasoline, but compressed natural gas or CNG fueling stations. COTA President and Chief executive, Curtis Stitt, says the $21 million project is part of a bus fleet transition.

“As buses reach their retirement age, we’re going to replace them with new buses that operate on compressed natural gas.”

Stitt and the COTA board of trustees made their decision after examining long-term forecasts for natural gas supply and prices. He says at current prices, COTA could save about $6 milion annually in fuel costs if its buses ran on CNG.

“We believe that some of the volatility that we saw years ago in the price of natural gas has leveled off. And because of the technology that’s allowing us to get to the natural gas that we couldn’t before we believe this is a fairly safe investment for COTA.”

The federal Energy Information Administration mostly concurs with COTA’s analysis. Analyst Angelina LaRose says long-range energy forecasts project more than adequate supplies and a slow, steady rise in commercial natural gas prices through the year 2040.

“What we’re showing in the long term that production and supply outpaces consumption, and even with the growth in those consuming sectors consumption.”

LaRose says the projected rise in natural gas supply takes into account potential energy demand increases from large users like transit systems and power plants. Natural gas industry lobbyists want the United States to export more of its natural gas supply in future years and that could lift prices further.

COTA vice president of Operations, Pat Stephens, downplays the effect of any natural gas price hikes in future years. He says price fluctuations are already common with the use of diesel fuel and he notes more development of Ohio’s shale gas deposits will keep supplies of the fuel close-by.

“We are so subject right now to the demands and the fluctuations in petroleum based fuels that right now with the discovery of recent shale deposits, etc, industry experts say that this should be stable, as a matter of fact we should have a surplus within 20 years.”

COTA currently pays about $3.06 per gallon of diesel. For a gallon equivalent of compressed natural gas the current price is .88 cents, a savings of about $2.18 per gallon. It will take 12 years for COTA to replace its entire fleet. In the meantime, Stitt says the transit authority wants to pair with the city of Columbus to increase the number of CNG fueling stations, just in case.

“What will happen if COTA’s facility is down and we have X-number of buses we can’t fuel.”

Stitt says the McKinley CNG fueling station will be completed by spring. A second fueling station will be built at the Fields Avenue garage near the state fairgrounds. And, COTA says the city of Columbus is working on development of another compressed natural gas fueling station on McKinley Avenue, across the street from COTA.