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Riding Green in Central Ohio

COTA Debuts New Natural Gas-Run Buses

by Deena Kloss

COTA CNG frontThe Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) has made significant progress in its preparation for the scheduled transition from ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel to compressed natural gas (CNG). A CNG fueling station is under construction at the authority’s McKinley Avenue facility and is slated to begin operations this spring.

In July 2011, COTA conducted a study to look at the potential benefits of switching to CNG to power its fixed-route bus fleet. The study compared costs of CNG versus diesel fuel, operational and maintenance expenses, market forces and infrastructure costs. In keeping with COTA’s robust Going Green program, environmental impacts (particularly emissions) were also evaluated.

COTA officials visited existing programs in Ohio and Fort Worth, Texas. They studied data from other public transit systems currently operating CNG fleets in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, and also gathered results from trials held at the Transportation Testing Center in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Engine manufacturers Cummins and Gillig weighed in as well.

In the end, the choice to shift towards natural gas and away from the ultra low sulfur diesel that had been used since 2007 (even in hybrid bus operations) came down to prices and the desire to use a domestically produced fuel source. The estimated payback in fuel savings from switching to natural gas will be achieved in just over four years.

When the decision to switch was made, COTA was already in the midst of a $76 million renovation of its McKinley Avenue maintenance facility. The 400,000-square-foot facility was built in 1974 and in need of an upgrade.

In mid-February, COTA took delivery of the first two CNG buses, with another 28 buses scheduled to arrive at the end of April. The new buses will be integrated into the fleet’s rotation once the necessary vehicle maintenance training and certifications are complete. “COTA’s historic direction with CNG is part of a growing consensus across the United States to reduce fuel costs and improve the environment,” says COTA Project Manager Jon Hancock.

The transition to an all-CNG fleet will be a 12-year process, occurring as coaches are retired and replaced and additional coaches are purchased as part of COTA’s ongoing service expansion program. “Think of it like replacing lightbulbs in your home,” says Media Relations Manager Brian Hoyt. “You don’t phase out your incandescents with CFLs all at once. You replace them as the older bulbs wear out.”

The transition will also require upgrades at several COTA locations, including a second CNG fueling station at its Fields Avenue bus facility, which also has a program for repurposing captured rainwater that is used to wash buses in the fleet.

COTA had already embraced green technology with its acquisition of six hybrid-electric passenger buses that were put into service in 2010. With a 48 percent increase in fuel efficiency, these buses continue to deliver passengers throughout Central Ohio.  COTA currently operates 67 routes, shuttling 18.7 million riders per year, and covers 562 square miles (1,883 contiguous miles) in the process.

COTA CNG collage LA“We are excited about the transition to CNG,” says President and CEO Curtis Stitt.“The investment in our capital infrastructure, coupled with the significant savings we will realize by using CNG, demonstrates COTA’s commitment to our customers, the taxpayers and all of our stakeholders in Central Ohio.”

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