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Council asks for natural gas buses

Ailing WAVE fleet needs to be replaced as soon as possible

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By Alison Taylor

Contrary to B.C. Transit’s goal of replacing its fleet of buses with diesel-powered vehicles, Whistler is looking to natural gas as its fuel of choice for public transit.

It may cost Whistler more money upfront in capital costs, but over the life cycle of the bus fleet the financial differences could be negligible.

Council voted to pursue natural gas buses Monday night, subject to the approval of the B.C. Transit board.

Mayor Ken Melamed said it wants B.C. Transit to be supportive of its decision.

“We (know) that they favour(ed) diesel,” he said.

“We (want) them to agree and come to support of their own volition, based on the costing and based on our commitment to the Integrated Air Quality Management Plan.”

As it approved the move to natural gas, council also asked that B.C. Transit replace Whistler’s ailing fleet of 25 buses as soon as possible — not in 2011 and 2016 as planned.

In his report to council, general manager of environmental services, Brian Barnett, laid out the increasing necessity of replacing Whistler’s overtaxed buses.

The vehicles are badly rusted, the interiors in poor condition and the mechanical systems are problematic. The municipality spends $1.2 million per year in bus maintenance.

If the fleet is not replaced in two years, Whistler’s costs are expected to increase significantly.

“Our buses are particularly compromised because of the high service hours,” said Melamed.

The buses are driven almost around the clock, and the system is on overdrive during the holiday season.

Melamed and Barnett had a meeting with the B.C. Transit board last month outlining the municipality’s concerns and the need to come to a decision sooner rather than later. New buses can take up to 18 months to order.

Monday’s decision means Whistler could eventually have a fleet made up of natural gas buses and the 20 hydrogen fuel cell buses promised to the resort for seven years as part of a federal-provincial 2010 Games showcase project.

The province is looking to build a new hydrogen fuelling centre in Whistler to support this project. The current Function Junction bus maintenance facility may not accommodate this and work is underway to find a new site in the resort.

The hydrogen fuel cell project makes the transition to natural gas a little easier.

There are economies and synergies with the hydrogen technology — both need pressurized gas lines, similar storing facilities and similar training and tools for maintenance staff.

The natural gas pipeline from Squamish is another added incentive for the switch.

“It’s part of the community plan in terms of transitioning to cleaner fuels,” explained Barnett.

“Propane is dirtier than natural gas… and then of course, diesel is a lot dirtier than natural gas.”

In particular, the amount of cancer causing pollutants in natural gas is significantly lower compared to diesel, he added.

The capital cost of a diesel bus is $561,000. A natural gas bus costs $638,000.

The municipality would most likely pick up that $77,000 per bus difference but Barnett explained there are several grant programs, which could offset those capital costs.

The life cycle comparison is estimated at a $7,000 difference: a hydrogen/diesel fleet is estimated to cost $1.759 million in 2011 whereas a hydrogen/natural gas fleet is about $1.766 million.

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