Q-C bus services eye options to be environmentally friendly

The Quad-Cities largest transit system is converting even more of its bus fleet to compressed natural gas, a lower-cost, more environmentally friendly fuel than traditional diesel.

By next year, MetroLINK will have added seven more buses to its fleet that will run on natural gas.

The conversion, which has been 11 years in the making, got a boost last week when the Federal Transit Administration announced it was awarding MetroLINK a nearly $2.2 million grant for the buses. State and local funding is contributing another $1.2 million.

The new buses will mean 85 percent of the 58-bus fleet will now run on compressed natural gas. The buses run cleaner than traditional diesel buses.

With lower fuel costs and federal tax advantages, "it kind of hits on all cylinders," says Jennifer Garrity, manager of administration.

Over the years, the nation's transit systems have been moving to more environmentally friendly systems, and there are various options for doing so.

They include compressed natural gas, hybrid and electric buses, as well as buses that run on cleaner diesel fuel.

Advocates for natural gas vehicles say they're best for the environment, though some environmentalists say there is little difference with the newer diesel buses.

About 35 percent of U.S. transit buses use alternative fuels or hybrid technologies, according to a 2011 estimate from the American Public Transportation Association. About 19 percent are using some form of natural gas, according to the association.

"We've had CNG on our radar screen ever since I got here," says Mike Clarke, the director of the City of Davenport's public works department, which oversees Davenport CitiBus. The system maintains 21 buses, all diesel.

Clarke has been with the city four years.

The city did use a stimulus grant a few years ago to purchase clean diesel buses. And it has budgeted $815,000 — the bulk of it federal money — for the purchase of three more new diesel buses in the 2015 fiscal year.

While Clarke says the city is thinking about converting to natural gas, upfront costs can be daunting.

The natural-gas powered buses cost more than traditional diesel buses, and money must be set aside for a filling station.

MetroLINK spent $1 million on fueling infrastructure more than a decade ago, about two-thirds of which was covered by the state.

Clarke adds that, in Davenport, there also are low bridges — like the 5th Street railroad bridges downtown — that don't provide clearance to buses running on compressed natural gas. The buses store their fuel on board, raising the height of the vehicles.

Bettendorf Transit has six buses for its fixed route service and another three that are fill-in buses.

All are diesel, but Michelle Javornik,the city's deputy public works director, said the city, too, is researching the possibility of converting.

"We're looking at it, but at this point it's at the exploratory phase," she said.

There appears to be no specific program in the state of Iowa to help pay for such conversions.

MetroLINK also is planning on delivery of two hybrid buses next year.

"We want to leave a little bit of diversity in the fleet," Garrity said.

This article was first published by Quad-City Times.

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