RFTA buses to go green? | AspenTimes.com

RFTA buses to go green?

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The valley’s diesel buses burned 591,912 gallons of fuel last year, spewing some 13 million pounds of carbon dioxide out of their exhaust pipes in the process.

This week, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority may make a formal commitment to a future that is less polluting and less dependent on petroleum.

The RFTA board of directors will be asked to adopt a policy supporting a phased approach to converting its fleet to alternative propulsion systems with three goals in mind: reducing the environmental impacts of the transit system, reducing its dependence on petroleum and providing higher-quality service to its customers.

“RFTA has talked for years about a cleaner fleet,” said Alice Hubbard, the authority’s director of development. “It’s a big deal to say, as an organization, we’re committed to converting to a greener, less petroleum-dependent fleet. It’s the first step.”

More than words on paper, the new policy may take on real meaning if the board adopts it. The directive comes at a critical time ? as RFTA positions itself for future federal transportation funding in a new bill that is up for reauthorization in 2003, Hubbard said.

“RFTA is going to have to figure out what kind of fleet we want to go after,” she said.

T-21, the federal transportation bill passed in 1996, will expire in September 2003. Its anticipated reauthorization next year will establish a huge list of nationwide projects and transit systems eligible for the so-called “New Starts” funding the legislation makes available.

“If the valley wants to continue to go after really substantially upgrading our regional transit system, we have to get on that list and determine what we’re going to go after,” Hubbard said.

A corridor investment study, to be released early next year, is expected to identify three alternatives for mass transit in the Roaring Fork Valley: rail (at a cost of more than $300 million); what is called Bus Rapid Transit; or continuing with the status quo.

If RFTA and the communities that comprise it decide to pursue a Bus Rapid Transit system, the policy before the board on Thursday could determine the type of buses that eventually make up that system, Hubbard said.

Bus Rapid Transit, she explained, is a moniker for a bus system that operates with rail-like efficiency. It could include, for example, technology that ensures buses on Highway 82 encounter only green lights at signalized intersections to keep them moving.

As for the buses themselves, there are a number of evolving alternatives to the conventional diesel technology on which RFTA’s current fleet relies, Hubbard noted.

RFTA experimented with one of them last week, running a hybrid diesel-electric bus from Aspen to Glenwood Springs as a demonstration project. The bus reduces diesel emissions by up to 90 percent and increases fuel efficiency by an estimated 60 percent.

With RFTA poised to order six new buses in the next month or so, the test run of the hybrid bus came at an opportune time.

“Do we order conventional diesel, do a hybrid or go with a mix?” said Kenny Osier, RFTA director of maintenance.

Cost and availability of the hybrid buses will be a factor in the decision, he said.

The hybrid impressed many with its quiet operation last week, but it costs roughly $200,000 more than the $308,000 RFTA would pay for each standard, clean-burning diesel bus, Osier said.

The increased fuel efficiency won’t necessarily allow the agency to recoup its costs over the life of the bus, he added.

“The real benefit is just to reduce noise and emissions,” Osier said.

Even if the RFTA board commits to pursing a greener fleet, the higher cost of alternative-fuel vehicles will force the board to continually weigh the benefits of the cleaner buses versus the additional service it can provide by getting more buses for the buck, Hubbard noted.

The RFTA board, which includes representatives of seven municipalities and counties up and down the valley, will meet Thursday at 9 a.m. at Carbondale Town Hall.

[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com]

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