State's Oldest Taxi Firm Converting to Compressed Natural Gas — Again

Driving a taxi powered by compressed natural gas not only cuts fuel consumption but for at least one driver, it may reduce aspirin intake.

When Marco Henry, owner of The Yellow Cab Co. in Bloomfield, recently began replacing the company's entire fleet of gasoline-powered taxis with new CNG-powered vehicles, a longtime driver told Henry the switch had eliminated his need to pop four or five aspirins a day.

"He thought it was because he wasn't breathing carbon monoxide fumes all day," said Henry, who bought Yellow Cab, the state's oldest taxicab company, in 1991 after selling the Springfield, Mass. cab company he had owned and operated since 1981.

Driving a compressed natural gas taxi may or may or may not reduce driver headaches (we'll leave that one to researchers) but according to experts, CNG vehicles emit 30 percent to 40 percent less greenhouse gases. While their upfront costs are higher — they are usually priced at 25 to 30 percent higher than similar gas-powered vehicles, they are, in the long run, cheaper to operate.

"They require less maintenance and fewer oil changes," Henry said. The fuel costs for a CNG-powered vehicle are currently the equivalent of $2.90 per gallon. Cab drivers, who lease their vehicles from the company and pay for their own fuel, save $100 to $250 a week at the pump, Henry said.

Yellow Cab, which was founded in 1898 — when the term horsepower referred to the actual number of horses pulling the hackney — may be the first taxi company in the United States whose entire fleet is powered by compressed natural gas.

Last year, the company took advantage of a $1 million Department of Energy grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The government incentive program provides several-thousand-dollar rebates for each CNG vehicle purchased, depending on the model. "Without the incentive this wouldn't have been viable," Henry said.

Henry approached TD bank last January to help finance the project.

"It was a competitive situation between our bank and other banks," said Jeff Hubbard, regional vice president of TD Bank. "One of the reasons he selected TD was the depth of our review and our keen interest in the environment."

Hubbard would not discuss loan details, but did say that it helped cover infrastructure improvements, including the acquisition of a state-of-art computerized dispatch system.

Henry, a Belgian immigrant who became an American citizen in 1984 aftger driving taxis in Miami, became interested in alternative fuels in the mid-1990s after his nine-year-old daughter quizzed him about the automobiles' role in polluting the environment. "It was 'Daddy, you're killing the birds and the bees!,'" he said.

The grilling led him to mull the possibility of replacing his gasoline-powered taxis with electric-powered taxis. "I wasn't worried about the price of the cars, but the price of the extension cord," Henry joked. At that point, electric cars cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, so the next option on the alternative fuel list was compressed natural gas, or CNG.

But the conversion process turned out to be years in the making, with a major investment, followed by a retreat, before this year's full changeover.

Conversion But No Expansion

By May, the company's fleet of 107 taxis and three supervisor vehicles will consist of new CNG-powered vehicles: 35 CNG-powered Ford Transit Connects; five CNG Honda Civics; 70 CNG-powered MV-1s; and five CNG Honda Civics.

The MV-1, made by The Vehicle Production Group, is a specially-designed wheelchair-accessible taxi that can carry up to six adults and two full-size wheelchairs. It is being manufactured at the former Hummer-2 plant in Mishawaka, Indiana. Once in service, the wheelchair-friendly taxi service will cost the same as a regular cab ride, about $2.50 per mile with no advance reservation required.

"You call for a cab, and it's there 10 minutes later," Henry said. Yellow Cab has joined with Metro Taxi of West Haven to provide wheelchair-friendly transportation in 60 towns from central Connecticut to Fairfield.

Henry is joining forces with Clean Energy Fuels Corp., a California fir that operates 257 CNG stations nationwide. Clean Energy just finished construction of the first public access CNG fueling station in the Hartford area, at Yellow Cab's headquarters on Granby Street in Bloomfield, making it a snap for the company to fill 'er up.

The new station, which will serve anyone who operates a CNG vehicles, opens to the public this week. The natural gas is compressed on site.

"Adopting natural gas fuel for public taxi use, together with the deployment of new ADA-compliant CNG taxi vehicles, and making the infrastructure available to all vehicle and fleet operators spotlights Bloomfield as a hub for a new energy future in Connecticut," Andrew J. Littlefair, president and chief executive of Clean Energy said in a prepared statement.​

This article was first published by Hartford Courant.

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