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NFTA officials are justifiably eager to trade diesel buses for new technology

Plans to convert a portion of its bus and paratransit fleet to compressed natural gas bodes well for the transit authority’s economic future and for the environment.

The other benefit is simple: riders and those following the CNG-powered buses will no longer be inhaling noxious fumes from diesel-powered engines.

This is not the first time that the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority has ventured into the use of compressed natural gas. An effort in the early 1990s, before the technology was ready for prime time, fizzled. Give the agency credit for recognizing that the time was right to revisit the strategy.

The NFTA is retiring 44 of its oldest full-size, diesel-powered buses, nearly 15 percent of its fleet, and 10 paratransit vans, and replacing them with new vehicles running on compressed natural gas. As part of the changeover, the agency will break ground Monday on a $5.9 million high-capacity, fast-fill CNG fueling station at Metro’s Frontier Bus Garage on Military Road in Buffalo. The move to CNG will play a key role in the NFTA’s transportation and financial future.

Transportation officials have for years considered using CNG to reduce fuel costs. Kimberley A. Minkel, the NFTA’s executive director, talked in 2011 about significant savings. At that time, diesel was about $3.20 per gallon and CNG between $1.25 and $1.50. The 2015 cost for diesel is $2.71; CNG, $1.35.

Minkel said that even though the cost of diesel fuel has fallen quite a bit in recent years, there is still substantial savings to be realized. The 54 new vehicles are expected to save more than $3.3 million over their useful life of about a dozen years, and that is after taking into account the capital costs for the fueling station and the costs for the vehicles. As the transit authority continues to change its fleet from diesel to compressed natural gas over 12 to 15 years, officials expect to save more than $26 million.

The exact savings will depend on how quickly the NFTA is able to purchase CNG buses for its fleet of 316, critical to achieving the maximum long-term savings. Getting there isn’t cheap. Of the nearly $6 million cost of the fueling station, the NFTA will pick up $5 million through financing; the Federal Transit Administration will kick in $575,112; National Fuel, $301,312; and the state Department of Transportation, $68,653.

Much will depend on the price of fuel, but assuming that diesel remains at about $2.71 per gallon, the NFTA is looking for the payback somewhere between three to five years for the refueling facility.

The conversion to natural gas is based on sound economics, but a huge side benefit is environmental. By switching to CNG the transit authority is improving air quality.

The fuel systems on the CNG buses are completely sealed and will not produce any evaporative emissions. That means a CNG vehicle, on an annual basis, will produce 82 pounds less nitrogen oxide emissions. Moreover, with the rapid increase in natural gas production in the United States, 99 percent of the NFTA’s fuel will be domestically sourced.

The transit authority was too far ahead of the curve when it first tried CNG. The limitations of what was then new technology provided lessons for the new effort.

Two decades later, low natural gas prices coupled with new technology will pay off in a big way for the NFTA.