LAFAYETTE — The city’s natural-gas-powered bus fleet could soon be growing.
Lafayette bought five natural-gas buses last year — the first step in converting the entire municipal bus fleet to what’s touted as a cleaner-burning and cheaper alternative to diesel fuel.
The city is now working on a deal to obtain 12 to 14 used natural-gas buses for free from a suburban county outside of Atlanta that no longer uses the vehicles, a measure that could help fill out the natural gas fleet ahead of schedule.
“Obviously, with new buses, we will get there eventually, but it will take a while,” Lafayette Director of Traffic and Transportation Tony Tramel said.
The additional buses also could pave the way for the possible expansion of the city’s bus service to include a shuttle system for University of Louisiana at Lafayette students, according to documents filed with the City-Parish Council.
The deal for the buses is not a sure thing, Tramel said, but the council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to give the administration approval to negotiate the agreement.
Tramel said his department already has seen big fuel savings from the five natural gas buses that came online last year: It costs the city about 20 cents a mile for the natural gas buses, compared with about one dollar a mile for the older, diesel-powered vehicles.
“The appeal of this is in reducing operating costs,” he said.
The used buses that Lafayette is considering for the expansion of its natural gas fleet are owned by Gwinnett County, Ga., a suburban area just outside of Atlanta.
The Georgia county purchased the buses in 2001 for a shuttle service to and from Atlanta but is phasing out the older, 35-seat units in favor of larger, 57-seat units to accommodate demand for the service, Gwinnett Country Transit Division Director Phil Boyd said.
The buses still have an estimated four years of useful life, Boyd said.
“They’re in really good shape,” he said.
The buses, like most used in government transit services, were funded mainly with federal dollars, and the federal government would require Gwinnett Country to pay back a portion of the federal money if the buses are sold while still having useful life.
Boyd said it’s unlikely the county could sell the vehicles for enough to repay the federal government what could be about $100,000 per bus.
But the Federal Transit Administration does allow a transit service to give used buses to another service without the obligation to pay off the remaining useful life.
“It turns out to be a good deal for everybody involved,” Boyd said.
Tramel said his department still has several “hoops to jump through” for the deal, including a thorough inspection of the buses.
If all goes well, the buses could be on the streets by next year, he said.
Lafayette is one of a handful of cities in the state that has begun tapping natural gas as a vehicle fuel.
The city also has a separate natural gas conversion program for regular government vehicles, and East Baton Rouge Parish is considering a project to begin converting some of its government fleet to run off natural gas.
A major lure is price.
In Lafayette, which has its own natural gas fueling station, the cost of the fuel is about 50 cents for what’s equivalent to a gallon of gasoline, Tramel said.
One of the main obstacles for government agencies considering a conversion to natural gas has been the up-front costs of specialized fueling stations and maintenance shops, but most of those expenses were covered in Lafayette with more than $2 million in state and federal grants.