Buses revved on natural gas

Todd Sternberg, project manager with Trillium CNG, helps Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper fuel a bus at the Roaring Fork Transit Authority’s new compressed natural gas fueling facility in Glenwood Springs Wednesday. “That’s the first time I’ve ever done that,” Hickenlooper said. RFTA contracted with Trillium to install the facility.

GLENWOOD SPRINGS—What started as an idea for quieter-running public transit buses has turned into a project likely to be heard about across Colorado and beyond, if boosters including Gov. John Hickenlooper have anything to do with it.

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority on Wednesday celebrated the opening of its compressed natural gas fueling station, and the addition in January of four buses that will run on them, with 18 more scheduled for delivery in July.

“What you are doing here is a model,” Hickenlooper said during a visit to the facility, as he voiced the hope that other entities such as Colorado school districts might follow suit in using an energy resource that’s cleaner and cheaper than gasoline and is produced in the state.

Hickenlooper used to work in the oil and gas industry as a geologist and is an advocate for responsible drilling. In 2011, he joined Kansas Gov. Mary Fallin in seeking to boost the use of natural gas in state vehicles, an effort that has spread to other states. He called RFTA’s CNG project “a remarkable example of exactly the way the world should look.”

RFTA Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship told Hickenlooper and a crowd filled with local public officials that the idea of the agency using CNG was first raised in the summer of 2011 by Michael Owsley, a Pitkin County commissioner and then-chair of the RFTA board. Owsley said it would be nice if the buses that idle at the agency’s downtown Aspen transit center were clean and quiet CNG buses rather than smelly, noisy diesel ones.

Blankenship was initially skeptical, worrying about how CNG buses might perform at high elevations. But he then learned that such buses have been used in Santa Fe, N.M., at 7,000 feet in elevation, and that CNG is cheaper than diesel, which has jumped 54 percent in price for RFTA since 2009.

RFTA is paying $16.5 million for the CNG buses, compressor station, safety modifications and related costs. But even accounting for those expenses, it expects to save about $200,000 a year because of the project.

The station allows for indoor fueling, which required measures such as leak detectors, explosion-proof doors and lighting, and heating and ventilation systems that exchange indoor air five times an hour.

“We wanted to make sure that in the pursuit of inexpensive fuel, we didn’t do anything that was going to put anybody in harm’s way,” Blankenship said.

Project funding included $9.4 million in Federal Transit Administration grants, $6.65 million in Qualified Energy Conservation Bond proceeds made possible by the Colorado Energy Office, and a $365,000 grant from Encana USA.

The project also required last-minute discussions with the FTA involving changing an order of diesel buses to CNG ones. The 18 buses arriving later this year are part of RFTA’s $46 million VelociRFTA bus rapid transit project, the first such project for a rural system in the nation. It will make use of enhanced bus stops, easy-to-board buses, transit signal priorities and other elements to make its service more competitive with driving in terms of convenience.

That project drew praise from outgoing U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last summer during a visit to the Roaring Fork Valley to learn more about it. Hickenlooper cited LaHood’s awareness of that project in lauding both its bus rapid transit and CNG undertakings.

“What you guys are doing here is groundbreaking in every sense of the word,” Hickenlooper told RFTA representatives Wednesday.

In an interview, Owsley said the CNG buses that already have been put into service have made a noticeable difference at the Aspen transit center, which is at the base of the ski area there.

“The last thing you want is diesel fumes spewing out and ruining (visitors’) experience of Aspen — or anywhere, actually,” he said.

RFTA’s embrace of CNG wasn’t without some reservations. The board struggled over the continuing controversy regarding health and environmental concerns related to natural gas drilling. Some of the county and municipal governments that belong to RFTA have joined in opposing drilling in the 220,000-acre Thompson Divide high country south of Glenwood Springs.

In the end, the RFTA board passed a resolution urging energy developers to use best management practices in their activities.

“We’ll get this right,” Hickenlooper promised Wednesday, referring to state-level efforts to pass regulations to ensure safe oil and gas development. He continues to face local resistance to drilling, including in Fort Collins this week, where the City Council passed a ban on hydraulic fracturing of wells in city limits.

While the RFTA fueling station is currently for its buses, Blankenship said RFTA wants to share it with Garfield County and the city of Glenwood Springs “so that they can save the taxpayers money, too.”

Matt Most, vice president of demand development and policy at Encana USA, said it’s been exciting to see the growing use of CNG in vehicles in the United States, something the company hopes will boost demand and lift sagging natural gas prices. For example, 40 percent of waste-hauling trucks sold today run on the fuel, he said. Encana is trying to help out through efforts such as the RFTA grant, and by leading by example. Nearly a third of its pickup trucks and half of its drilling rigs run on natural gas.

“We need these new (CNG) markets so we can keep the rigs operating,” Most said.


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