Port Authority moving toward natural gas, electric buses

In the next three years, the Port Authority expects to begin rolling out new buses powered by alternative sources such as electricity or natural gas instead of diesel.

An authority committee last week recommended the agency buy 25 new articulated buses for $22.9 million from New Flyer of America Inc. in Minnesota as it continues to replace its aging fleet. The full board will vote on the purchase on Friday and buses should be delivered beginning in December 2017.

But the contract also includes an option to buy an additional 75 buses powered by natural gas or a combination of fuels. Bill Miller, chief operations officer, said the agency should have facilities available to accommodate the alternative buses in two to three years.

New Flyer Electric Bus

The holdup is the agency would have to revamp the four existing maintenance garages for electric vehicles and construct a new facility for natural gas buses at a cost of $120 million to $140 million, including the cost of at least 30 acres of land. The Port Authority is working with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to find a site and expects a report in the first quarter of 2017, CEO Ellen McLean said.

The agency recently tested three buses powered by natural gas and found them acceptable in limited use, Mr. Miller said. In discussions with other transit agencies already using the buses in hilly terrains, he said, those firms said the vehicles have a problem with burning pistons during extended use.

“We’re a little concerned about that,” Mr. Miller said. “We’ve had candid discussions with [Cummins Inc. of Columbus, Ind.] about that and they say they are working on it.”

Cummins makes the only electric engine for large buses.

The agency’s existing maintenance garages in East Liberty, Collier, Ross and West Mifflin can be easily adapted for electric buses, Mr. Miller said. In some cases, the buses can plug into heavy-duty electric outlets and in others an overhead charging station is needed, he said.

Ms. McLean said the agency could be ready to begin ordering electric vehicles as early as next summer, and it takes about a year before they begin arriving.

Natural gas buses, though, are a different story.

The agency also has been happy with limited use of natural gas buses in recent years. But those vehicles need a maintenance facility with a sophisticated ventilation system to prevent explosions and it would be too expensive to retrofit existing garages, Mr. Miller said.

Once the Port Authority finds the land for a new garage, it will take two to three years to design and build the facility.

The new buses the agency is expected to order this week are 60-foot articulated buses with low floors that will cost about $728,000 each. They are paid for with 80 percent federal and 20 percent state and local funding.

They will replace high-floor buses — which can be difficult for passengers with wheelchairs to use — that are at least 12 years old or have been on the road for more than 500,000 miles. By the end of next year, the authority expects to replace 170 of its 726 buses, more than 20 percent of its fleet.

Correction, posted Nov. 16, 2016: The Port Authority of Allegheny County is concerned about a problem with burning pistons in buses built by Cummins Inc. that run on natural gas. The fuel was misidentified in an earlier version of this story. The story also incorrectly said the authority had an option to buy buses powered by electricity. The option pertains to buses that run on natural gas or a combination of fuels.

Original article posted at: http://www.post-gazette.com/news/transportation/2016/11/13/Port-Authority-moving-toward-natural-gas-electric-buses/stories/201611130098


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