The head of the parish’s public transit system says he’s looking at buying some buses powered by alternative fuel sources to save on fuel costs and reduce emissions now that a tax has passed that will allow CATS to invest in new technologies.
Brian Marshall, chief executive officer of the Capital Area Transit System, said CATS plans to purchase a mix of large and small buses, and some hybrid diesel-electric buses.
CATS operates a fleet of 35-foot buses that run off of ultra-low sulphur diesel, which Marshall describes as a cleaner, slightly more expensive diesel fuel. Fuel costs this year are budgeted at about $1.6 million, said Gary Owens, CATS’ chief financial officer.
Marshall said hybrid-diesel buses provide better fuel mileage, and their low emissions are comparable to those of hydrogen-powered buses. Hybrid buses, which are more expensive than regular diesel buses, switch back and forth between diesel and electric.
“The buses run off of diesel for a period of time, then the electric system kicks in, and it runs as an electric vehicle for a period of time,” he said.
Marshall said it’s too early to say how many hybrid buses CATS will purchase but that he expects to add some to the fleet within the next 24 months. He said the buses work better on “longer routes with fewer stops,” like the express routes promised under the tax plan.
Marshall also said CATS will likely purchase some smaller buses. The lack of smaller, more gas-efficient vehicles was a point of contention brought up by many tax opponents of the ballot issue, who asserted that the bus system was wasting money.
Marshall said he has never opposed the use of smaller buses, but said it was previously imprudent to purchase them because they have a shorter life cycle that would have been exacerbated by CATS’ long routes with multiple stops.
“Now you will see some shorter routes, and routes with less stops, and therefore smaller vehicles could fit into that,” Marshall said.
Lauren Stuart, executive director of Greater Baton Rouge Clean Cities, called the hybrid buses a “step in the right direction.” Clean Cities is a national public-private partnership that facilitates the development of alternative fuel technologies.
“There are a lot of benefits to making that step, but it’s not the best possible thing they could do,” she said. “Pure electric has far less emissions and lower maintenance costs, but for CATS situation right now, it’s a good place to start.”
Stuart also said Compressed Natural Gas buses, or CNG, are a popular alternative for some bus systems, especially in areas that have air quality issues and in states that are large producers of natural gas like Louisiana.
Marshall said the initial investment for CNG buses are too great for CATS to consider at this time. In addition to the vehicles being more expensive than regular diesel buses, Marshall said it would cost about $3 million just to get the CATS maintenance facility in line with the regulatory standards for a CNG facility.
Marshall also said most CNG vehicles carry the natural gas tanks on top of the buses, which pose a problem in Baton Rouge where there are low-hanging oak trees.
“Those oak trees are right at the tops of these buses right now,” Marshall said. “I’d hate to see it tear the tank off.”
Together Baton Rouge, a faith-based nonprofit who strongly advocated for the CATS tax, asked CATS officials to publicly commit to pursuing cleaner fuel alternatives if it passed the tax.
Edgar Cage, a Together Baton Rouge volunteer leader, said hybrid electric vehicles will improve performance for CATS while improving air quality for the community.
Cage also noted that the hybrids have better fuel economy than CNG buses.
Hybrid buses had the best fuel economy compared to biodiesel, ultra-low sulphur diesel and CNG buses, with CNG buses coming in last, according to a 2007 report by the Federal Transit Authority.
However, officials with the Lafayette Transit System say their foray into CNG buses has been a success. The system has had five CNG buses since October, and is ordering four more, said Mike Hollier, planning manager for Lafayette Consolidated Government.
Hollier said the initial investment was great, but said diesel fuel prices will continue to climb year after year, while natural gas prices are more stable.