Natural-gas fleet grows

Advocate photo by BRAD BOWIE -- One of Lafayette's natural gas-powered buses arrives at the Rosa Parks Transit Center on Friday morning. A Georgia county donated 12 of the natural gas-powered buses to the city, which should be rolling by spring, bringing the total number of buses running on the cleaner fuel to 17. Show caption
Advocate photo by BRAD BOWIE -- One of Lafayette's natural gas-powered buses arrives at the Rosa Parks Transit Center on Friday morning. A Georgia county donated 12 of the natural gas-powered buses to the city, which should be rolling by spring, bringing the total number of buses running on the cleaner fuel to 17.

Conversion from diesel gets boost

The initiative to transition Lafayette’s bus fleet from diesel fuel to cleaner-burning natural gas is about to get a big boost.

Lafayette has received 12 natural gas-powered buses at no cost from a suburban county near Atlanta that phased out the units in favor of larger models.

The buses are now undergoing inspections and routine maintenance and should be newly painted and rolling by the spring, said City-Parish Transit and Parking Manager Mike Mitchell.

The buses will add to the existing fleet of five natural gas-powered buses that Lafayette bought new in 2011, and five more new natural-gas buses are on order, said City-Parish Director of Traffic and Transportation Tony Tramel.

Mitchell said the full conversion of the bus fleet to natural gas is not expected until 2020, but Lafayette has taken a big jump over the past two years in switching to what’s touted as a cheaper and cleaner-burning alternative to diesel fuel.

Tramel said another selling point for the effort is that the local oil and gas service industry has been a key player in the discovery and production of what has been a growing supply of natural gas in Louisiana.

“Why shouldn’t we be the model for the state,” he said of the switch to natural gas-powered vehicles.

The use of natural-gas buses should help cut air pollution from exhaust, but a major lure has been the reduction in fuel expenses, Mitchell said.

A regular diesel bus in Lafayette’s transit service uses an average of $4,300 worth of diesel fuel a month, but the monthly fuel cost for a natural gas-powered bus ranges from $1,400 to $1,700, according to estimates from Mitchell.

“We believe we will see a huge benefit in transportation costs,” Mitchell said.

City-parish government has also been converting its normal fleet of vehicles from gasoline to natural gas.

Tramel said 45 vehicles have already been converted and another 20 will be converted before the end of the year.

City-parish government this year also built a new natural-gas fueling station at the public works facility on East University Avenue.

That station is now used for the buses and other government vehicles, but Tramel said it should be open to the public in the near future.

Apache Corp., a Houston-based energy company that has been promoting natural gas as a vehicle fuel, opened a public natural-gas fueling station earlier this year on East Verot School Road.

As Lafayette is shifting its bus fleet to natural gas, the city is also considering an agreement to begin using those more efficient buses to offer a shuttle service for University of Louisiana at Lafayette students, Tramel said.

“We are still exploring that,” he said.

Tramel said the ULL service would not even be a consideration if Lafayette had not obtained the 12 buses from Georgia.

Gwinnett County, Ga., purchased the buses in 2001 for a commuter shuttle service to and from Atlanta, but the county phased out the older buses, which have 35 seats, in favor of 57-seat models, Gwinnett Country Transit Division Director Phil Boyd said in an interview earlier this year.

The buses, like most used in government transit services, were bought mainly with federal dollars, and the federal government would have required Gwinnett Country to repay a portion of the federal money if the buses were sold while still having useful life.

But the Federal Transit Administration allowed the county to transfer the buses to Lafayette, another federally supported transit service, without the obligation to reimburse any of the purchase price.

A growing number of government agencies and private companies have been eyeing natural gas as a vehicle fuel, but a major issue has been the initial cost of buying or converting vehicles and building specialized fueling stations and maintenance facilities.

The initiative in Lafayette has been funded largely by more than $2 million in state and federal grants.