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Diesel Buses: a Step Backward

May 21, 2000

With its proposal to purchase hundreds of new diesel buses, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is trying to turn its back on seven years of clean-air progress.

The MTA staff's arguments for so-called "clean diesel" buses are as follows: Diesels are cheaper than compressed natural gas (CNG) buses; the region can't afford to be dependent on buses that operate on only one kind of fuel; the new diesel engines and fuels and particulate traps will bring emissions down to near CNG levels (hotly disputed); the diesels will run longer and more reliably; CNG buses might pose an explosion danger.

The expense argument is shot down immediately by the fact that Gov. Gray Davis' proposed budget is calling for $150 million for Los Angeles to buy 385 CNG buses. The danger of "putting all of your fuel eggs in one basket" as one MTA spokesman put it, seems weak at best; no one said that when all the buses were diesel-fueled.

The growing movement against diesel holds that it will never run as cleanly as CNG. The MTA is making claims about the relative unreliability of CNG buses at a time when it is crowing about improved reliability and range and on-time performance for all of its buses. And the idea that we should be concerned about the safety of CNG is spurious, given the rock-steady safety record of CNG buses nationwide. Moreover, the pressure to reduce the nation's reliance on diesel has never been stronger.

A legal settlement, which still requires a judge's approval, is expected to end years of litigation brought by local environmentalists against truckers and the Ralphs, Safeway/Vons and Albertsons/Lucky Stores grocery chains, which have agreed to purchase alternative-fuel trucks and warn communities near their distribution centers of the cancer threat from the exhaust from their trucks.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rolled out draft national standards that would force new heavy-duty trucks and buses to be virtually smoke-free beginning in 2007. The proposed 97% cutback in the sulfur content of diesel fuel is necessary. And this summer the South Coast Air Quality Management District will consider draft rules requiring all government entities in the Los Angeles Basin to purchase only alternative-fuel buses and trash trucks.

Why now would the MTA even think of cutting across the new grain? The agency at its meeting this week should reject the attempt to put more diesel buses on the region's still smoggy streets.

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