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Westmoreland County bus fleet set for fuel conversion

Rich Cholodofsky
| Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016, 10:06 p.m.

Westmoreland County Transit Authority will begin converting its bus fleet next year to compressed natural gas as part of a statewide project.

Authority board members this week unanimously approved a contract with PennDOT to allow for the installation of natural gas pumps by summer at the agency's Hempfield maintenance facility.

“The conversion should keep our fuel costs stable, and it is cleaner burning than diesel,” authority Executive Director Alan Blahovec said.

PennDOT last year launched an $84.5 million project with Salt Lake City, Utah-based Trillium CNG to convert 29 public transportation centers throughout Pennsylvania to natural gas fueling centers over the next five years.

The company is expected to take about eight months to install equipment at the authority's maintenance garage.

It will take about a decade to convert the authority's entire fleet, transit officials said.

The authority has 41 buses, and 23 vehicles are slated to be replaced within the next year. Blahovec said the authority will buy buses that use compressed natural gas, or CNG.

The remainder of the fleet, which operates on diesel, is scheduled for replacement over the next 10 years.

Initially, the conversion will impact buses used as part of the authority's fixed-route service that includes routes within Westmoreland County and commuter service to Pittsburgh. The fixed-route service averages about 41,500 passengers a month.

The authority's paratransit service, which operates with 40 small buses and vans, could be added to the CNG project in the future, Blahovec said.

Authority officials considered converting the bus fleet to natural gas even before the new maintenance facility opened in 2012, but the $4 million cost was too expensive.

PennDOT will pay to install the CNG depot, and the authority will pay a 60-cent surcharge on each gallon of natural gas purchased.

Diesel prices have fluctuated from $3 per gallon in 2015 to $1.80 per gallon this year.

The cost of natural gas is estimated at about 75 cents per gallon.

“I think we're fortunate. It's a great opportunity for us,” authority board Vice Chairwoman Rosie Wolford said.

Westmoreland County is part of the second phase of the statewide conversion effort. Installation of CNG fueling stations started earlier this year in Centre, Cambria and York counties.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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