by the numbers
$2.3M The total of a federal grant that HART is getting for the program.
2013 The year that HART expects the natural gas filling station to be running.
20 Amount, in percentage, that HART expects to save in fuel costs.
177 Number of buses within HART's existing fleet.
Source: Hillsborough Area Regional Transit
TAMPA — Hillsborough Area Regional Transit says it's planning to swap out its fleet of diesel-powered buses and vans with vehicles powered by less expensive compressed natural gas.
The transit agency said the move will save 20 percent on fuel costs and could extend the life of buses by 100,000 miles, potentially lowering maintenance costs as well.
"The selling point of this is that it's green, and it's cost-effective," said chief executive officer Philip Hale, who first pushed for the change three years ago when he was the agency's maintenance chief.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded HART $2.3 million to build a compressed natural gas fueling station and outfit its maintenance building with equipment and safety features to service natural gas buses. The agency expects the fueling station to be running by late 2013.
Sometime after that, HART will begin a six-year process of cycling out its older diesel-powered vans and buses in favor of natural-gas-powered vehicles, starting with the 58 vans used for paratransit and suburban flex services. The agency would then start to cycle through its fleet of 177 buses.
Hale said he expects HART to take delivery of 14 new vans in mid 2013. He's not sure how many buses the agency will get in 2014. The vehicles' costs would be funded by federal grants.
Still undecided is which company will deliver the natural gas to HART's maintenance and fueling yard. Possible providers include TECO, which pipes gas to the facility now, or another utility. Hale said the agency will try to secure a long-term, fixed-price contract.
HART isn't unique in turning to alternative fuels. Broward County Transit and LYNX, which operates in Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties, both use biodiesel to power buses. Of the Pinellas County Transit Authority's 191 buses, 24 are diesel-electric hybrids.
Hale, who became HART's chief executive two weeks ago, said he became convinced of the benefits of natural gas after working at Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which is in the process of replacing its 700 buses with natural gas vehicles.
More transit agencies are turning to the fuel, lured by stable prices and a steady domestic supply, he said.
The American Public Transportation Association reports that 51 U.S. transit agencies now operate buses powered by natural gas. Seven of those, including the Los Angeles County MTA, have outfitted their entire fleets with natural gas buses.
On average, compressed natural gas vehicles achieve an 80 percent reduction in ozone-forming emissions, according to the California Energy Commission.
The financial benefits are clear as well, said Hale. Switching to natural gas would save HART 20 percent on its $5 million annual fuel bill. Additionally, natural gas buses get slightly better mileage than their diesel counterparts, 5 mpg vs. 4 mpg, which could further ramp up savings.
Across the bay, Pinellas' transit agency hasn't committed either way to the technology, but TECO representatives will visit PSTA early next month to discuss natural gas.
The agency experimented with a handful of compressed natural gas buses in the late 1990s but scrapped the idea when lower diesel prices negated the cost savings. The agency also had trouble obtaining parts.
"If you have a problem getting parts, you can't run buses," PSTA maintenance chief Jeff Easterling said.
Technology, he said, has since improved, and he's not ruling out the possibility the agency's board might again explore running the vehicles.
"It all depends on the board," he said.