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Now Westmoreland transit can fuel growing fleet of natural gas buses

Stephen Huba
| Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, 3:57 p.m.

The only thing holding up the use of six new natural gas-fueled buses by the Westmoreland County Transit Authority is a license plate.

The gleaming 57-seat buses stand ready to replace six older, diesel vehicles now that a compressed natural gas, or CNG, fueling station is online.

The transit authority held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday to officially open the station. Local dignitaries watched as a technician filled up one of the new MCI Commuter Coach buses with the CNG fuel.

“This gives us the opportunity to capitalize on the abundance of natural gas right here in Western Pennsylvania,” said Frank Tosto, transit authority board chairman. “The fuel is literally underfoot.”

Transit authority Executive Director Alan Blahovec said the buses will be put into service within a week, once the license plates arrive.

Although passengers will hardly notice a difference, the benefits of natural gas over diesel are threefold — a lower noise level, greater fuel efficiency and environmental improvements, he said.

“It's a much cleaner-burning fuel,” Blahovec said. “While the savings isn't as great today as it might have been a couple years ago, when diesel was much higher, CNG costs seem to stay pretty stable over time.”

The transit authority expects to save more than $400,000 a year, based on current diesel costs and diesel and gas usage of 415,000 gallons per year, according to PennDOT.

The Westmoreland project is part of an $84.5 million statewide project to convert 29 public transit agencies from diesel to natural gas by 2021. Funding came from the PennDOT Public-Private Partnership, or P3, project.

“We're blessed to have the relationship that we have with PennDOT. It is truly a partnership,” Tosto said, noting there was no cost to the county taxpayer.

Westmoreland is the seventh of nine facilities that will complete their conversion this year. Seven more are planned for 2018, said Scott Zeevaart of engineering consultant Gannett Fleming.

Zeevaart said the participating agencies will realize $10 million in fuel savings a year once all of them are online.

“Those lower operational costs you can turn into more services for your constituents,” he said.

The Westmoreland component included modifications to the Hempfield maintenance facility and the installation of the filling station by Trillium CNG, a Salt Lake City company that will operate the stations for the state.

The transit authority approved the purchase of the six buses, using mostly state and federal funds, in January. The cost per bus was $667,566, officials said.

Five smaller CNG buses are on order for 2018, and the transit authority has funding for 11 more.

“By the end of 2018, we're hoping that half of our fleet will be CNG,” Blahovec said.

The goal is for the entire fleet of 25 diesel buses and 16 paratransit buses to be CNG fueled — something the transit authority anticipated when it opened the Hempfield facility five years ago, Tosto said.

“We built it so the transition to CNG would be more seamless,” he said.

Supplying the natural gas to the station is Peninsula Energy Services Co., which acquired the assets of ARM Energy Management earlier this year.

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, shuba@tribweb.com or via Twitter @shuba_trib.

Bob Freeman, lead technician with National Express, refuels a Westmoreland County Transit Authority bus with compressed natural gas on Thursday, while transit authority board Chairman Frank Tosto and County Commissioner Ted Kopas look on.
Stephen Huba | Tribune-Review
Bob Freeman, lead technician with National Express, refuels a Westmoreland County Transit Authority bus with compressed natural gas on Thursday, while transit authority board Chairman Frank Tosto and County Commissioner Ted Kopas look on.
Westmoreland County Transit Authority board Chairman Frank Tosto watches Thursday as Bob Freeman, lead technician with National Express, gets ready to refuel a bus with compressed natural gas.
Stephen Huba | Tribune-Review
Westmoreland County Transit Authority board Chairman Frank Tosto watches Thursday as Bob Freeman, lead technician with National Express, gets ready to refuel a bus with compressed natural gas.
Westmoreland County Transit Authority board Chairman Frank Tosto (with scissors) gets ready to cut the ribbon Thursday for the CNG station with County Commissioners (from left) Ted Kopas, Gina Cerilli and Charles Anderson.
Stephen Huba | Tribune-Review
Westmoreland County Transit Authority board Chairman Frank Tosto (with scissors) gets ready to cut the ribbon Thursday for the CNG station with County Commissioners (from left) Ted Kopas, Gina Cerilli and Charles Anderson.
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