South Bend Transpo is getting a $4.3 million federal Department of Transportation grant to purchase 11 new natural gas-powered buses.
Transpo started converting its fleet to natural gas, or CNG, in 2014. These 11 new buses will replace the agency’s last 11 diesel buses, meaning the agency will have an all-CNG fleet.
“The useful life of a transit bus, according to the Federal Transit Administration, is 12 years and 500,000 miles,” Transpo general manager and CEO Amy Hill said. “These 11 remaining buses are all 18 to 20 years old and well over that 500,000 miles.”
Hill said CNG buses are quieter and pollute less than diesel ones. For example, one CNG bus emits 99.7 percent less nitrogen oxides — pollutants that contribute to the formation of smog and acid rain — than a diesel bus.
In addition, CNG buses are cheaper to operate. Hill said the agency expects to save at least $132,000 in fuel costs annually thanks to the switch.
The CNG buses are also more reliable, meaning a big decrease in maintenance costs.
“You’re going from operating a bus that was 18 to 20 years old to operating a brand-new vehicle,” Hill said. “Same thing when you buy a personal auto — you’re going to see the general wear and tear and maintenance costs reduced with a newer vehicle.”
The older diesel buses have a labor and parts per mile cost of $10.43, while the new CNG buses clock in at $3.99.
Hill said the 11 New Flyer buses are on track to be manufactured this fall and should be delivered and in service by spring 2023.
And there’s a local economic impact — the buses use Indiana-built Cummins engines and Allison transmissions, and their seats and poles are made in Elkhart.
The $4.3 million in federal funds is covering 80 percent of the cost, with the remaining 20 percent match coming from the Indiana Volkswagen Mitigation Trust Fund.
Hill said Transpo went with CNG buses over electric because it made the most sense for the system at this time. Going fully electric would have its challenges — Hill said electric buses are substantially more expensive, and the agency would also need to invest in charging infrastructure.
“We’re a small system — we can have a bus that leaves our facility at 5 a.m. and may not be back until 10 p.m., and that’s not going to go on a full charge,” she said.
There’s also the possibility of hydrogen fuel cells — the only emission is water, and those buses can be fueled in the same amount of time as a CNG bus, Hill said.
Either way, she said the agency is always looking toward the next step.
“It’s not quite getting us to zero emissions — that will probably be the next thing after CNG,” Hill said. “But it does have a very positive impact on our local environment and the areas we provide service.”