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ABC 6 Investigates The Money Trail: Natural Gas vs. Diesel

Created: 05/20/2014 7:33 AM KAALtv.com

(ABC 6 News) - With the rising cost of diesel fuel, both Rochester Public Works and Rochester Public Transit are looking into an option that may be less costly overtime.

They want to stage-in compressed natural gas, or CNG vehicles. However, switching over would mean changes to the brand new facility, possibly building a new fueling station, plus the cost of the vehicles themselves. We wanted to know, why wasn't this considered when they built the building just two years ago, and will the payback really be worth all the extra costs?

"Right now, the spread is about two dollars a gallon and so we burn about 260,000 gallons of diesel a year. We're the largest users as far as a city department goes. You take that, that's over 500,000 dollars a year," said Transit and Parking Manager Tony Knauer.

That is just in diesel costs and just for the transit buses, as for public works…"Right now, we have 25 dump trucks and we have, over the whole fleet, right around 200 vehicles," said Public Works Supervisor Monty Meyer.

Both departments are currently looking to ease those skyrocketing fuel costs by switching to compressed natural gas, or CNG vehicles. "Diesel could go up about 1.5 percent per year and CNG could go up a half of a percent," said Knauer.

Though with any major change-over, you've got costs elsewhere. "The budget number has always been around 40-45 thousand dollars in additional cost for a CNG bus, now with that two dollar spread, you get that back within about three and a half years," said Knauer. We're told the new CNG buses and public works vehicles would be phased in, not all purchased at once. "Even if we decide to begin to buy all CNG as of tomorrow, we'll still have diesel buses here until 2029," said Knauer.

Buying the vehicles is just one cost. The second, they'd have to bring the brand new facility up to code. That means a half a million dollars in upgrades for the transit maintenance facility and another half a million for public works. "If the CNG gas would leak, it goes to the top of the roof so we've got to have that 18 inches with no electrical. We'd have to take all of our electrical conduit and lower it 18 inches," said Meyer.

The facility was built just two years ago, so why wasn't this all factored in? "Realistically the planning started back in 2008 for this facility. If you look back at the planning, CNG wasn't really popular back in 2008, it's really the last couple years that it's become more popular, especially for the transit sector," said Meyer.

"It could have been a different fuel source. I'm not sure, but the payback is there," said Knauer.

Finally, the third cost is that those buses would need somewhere to fuel up. Right now, the only place is at one of the Kwik Trip's in Rochester. "If we're going to be fueling all of our buses here, it's more or likely, or a better idea, that we build a fueling station," said Knauer.

This whole conversion then, would mean new vehicles, updates to the maintenance facilities, and possibly a new fueling station. The payback time is estimated at roughly 7 years. Those we spoke with say we have to keep in mind, however, that overtime they'd have to replace vehicles anyway. "It would be a 10 year period for us because we replace our vehicles every 10 years," said Meyer.

Their thought is, why not switch to something that's believed to be more cost effective in the long run? "The savings in fuel is very tempting. A half a million dollars eventually and that's probably, if you add inflation onto that, that's probably a whole lot more," said Knauer.

All of those findings were part of a study that's being considered by the Rochester City Council. City council is expected to vote on this before the end of next month.