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- 2014 - January - 28th -
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From left, Joseph Erves of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority; Randy Cloud of Tulsa Transit; Pat Stephens, retired from the Central Ohio Transit Authority; and Stephen McNally of the Greater Richmond Transit Co., participated in a Jacksonville Transportation Authority panel Monday on compressed natural gas.

Big decisions to come for JTA $50M CNG project

By David Chapman, Staff Writer

Jacksonville Transportation Authority officials know they will convert part of the bus fleet to compressed natural gas. They know a fueling station supplying the alternative fuel is in the plans.

And they know the long-term commitment will be more than $50 million.

What they don't know is if the authority will forge ahead on its own or partner with a private company.

"This procurement is significant for JTA," said Nathaniel Ford, JTA executive director. "Converting fleet from diesel to CNG is a 30- to 40-year decision …. and we'll have to live with that decision."

The target is to convert 100 vehicles to compressed natural gas and build the fueling station at JTA's Myrtle Avenue campus. The alternative fuel is being lauded as cheaper and more environmentally friendly in the long-term than diesel.

The first option would have the authority using its own money to build a compressor station, fueling station, buy the buses and pay for capital expenditures. That option allows flexibility in operations, maintenance, fuel purchasing and possibly selling the alternative fuel to the public from the station.

Entering a public-private partnership would mean the outside party would own the facility and help convert the buses, but possibly allow the transition to happen faster and save the authority money upfront.

It also could mean JTA saves more quickly on fuel.

"We've got to find the right balance," Ford said. "We need to do it right, right from the start."

The request for proposals will be due in April, with interviews scheduled for May and a recommended award to the authority's board in June. The station will be built and buses delivered by September 2015.

Ford said a budget for the project wasn't available because the authority wants the private sector "to sharpen their pencils" when submitting, but that it would be in excess of $50 million.

Ford said he would need to see the responses before suggesting which option he preferred to the board, but he wants one that "allows us to implement a CNG fleet as soon as possible."

"At some point, the board will have a very difficult decision to make," he said.

Officials from several areas around that country that made similar decisions took part in a Monday forum for vendors, suppliers and others in the industry to learn about the fuel and JTA's project needs.

Pat Stephens, retired operations vice president for the Central Ohio Transit Authority, and Joseph Erves, of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, were among panelists who talked about the benefits and pitfalls of moving to the alternative fuel.

"Right now it's going to cost you," Stephens said. "Long term, you're going to find out it's the right thing to do."

Erves said that MARTA made the decision to convert to CNG decision just after the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, but in time focus turned back to diesel — making it costlier for maintenance on the existing natural gas vehicles.

"Once that commitment is made, stick to it," he said.

Several suggested that a commitment be to employees who know diesel learn the technology and training required for compressed natural gas.

dchapman@baileypub.com

@writerchapman

(904) 356-2466

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