ASPEN - The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority hopes to have four buses in its fleet operating on compressed natural gas by the time the Winter X Games start at Buttermilk on Jan. 24, according to RFTA President and CEO Dan Blankenship.
RFTA's construction of a compressed-natural-gas fueling facility in Glenwood Springs is nearly complete and is undergoing extensive safety testing, Blankenship said. Final testing is scheduled for Wednesday, when RFTA officials hope all four buses operating on the alternative fuel will have been delivered to the Roaring Fork Valley.
Another 18 buses fitted to run on compressed natural gas have been ordered and will be delivered in time for RFTA's expansion of service in September.
RFTA is spending nearly $16.42 million on the project. Installing the compressed-natural-gas fueling station at the Glenwood Springs maintenance facility cost $2.5 million. It cost another $2.7 million to make safety modifications to the facility, including deflagration walls to contain any possible fire. Design and construction management cost another $390,000, pushing the total for the facility to $5.59 million, according to RFTA documents.
The cost of the buses is $10.72 million. Issuing bonds comprised the remainder of the costs.
The federal government is paying for roughly 57 percent of the project. RFTA received a Federal Transit Administration capital grant of $9.4 million. Encana, an oil and gas producer, gave RFTA an investment grant for $365,000. RFTA itself issued $6.65 million in qualified energy conservation bonds.
RFTA says the project meets its goal of providing environmentally friendly transit service in the valley. The agency plans to promote the cleaner-burning buses in some way during the X Games and in general, according to Blankenship.
Compressed natural gas burns cleaner than diesel fuel, reducing RFTA's carbon emissions. In addition, natural gas is currently cheaper than diesel fuel, so the bus agency is saving money.
"Staff estimates that savings derived from using (compressed natural gas) as a fuel for 22 buses, instead of diesel, should more than offset the debt service on these capital items and, depending on the final cost of natural gas, save RFTA an additional $164,000 to $210,000," said a memo from Blankenship to the agency's board of directors.
RFTA still will use numerous buses that operate on diesel fuel, somewhat hedging its bet in case natural-gas prices spike. Natural gas is currently at its low point in at least the past decade. Blankenship said the next big replacement of current buses running on diesel fuel won't occur until 2020.
Board members expressed support for completing the project. They stressed to Blankenship the importance of making sure all safety precautions are being taken with the less-than-typical facility. Blankenship said only two or three other indoor compressed-natural-gas fueling stations exist in the country.
He assured the board that the tests with representatives of the equipment manufacturer are extensive to ensure the facility is safe.
"My office is right next to the fuel bay, so it better be safe," Blankenship quipped.