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Diesel era ends for MTA buses

Metro is now the only major transit agency in the U.S. with a fleet run entirely on alternative fuels. Officials say the shift has sharply cut emissions of cancer-causing pollution.

January 13, 2011|By Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times

After almost two decades of effort to reduce vehicle emissions, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority retired its last diesel bus Wednesday and became the only major transit agency in the nation with a fleet that is totally equipped with alternative-fuel technologies.

In an urban area where diesel buses began operating in 1940, the MTA now has 2,221 buses powered by compressed natural gas, as well as one electric bus and six gasoline-electric hybrids.

Transit officials estimate that the elimination of diesel engines has reduced the release of cancer-causing particulates from the bus fleet by 80% and greenhouse gases by about 300,000 pounds a day in one of the smoggiest areas of the country.

MTA officials say that compressed natural gas buses cost more to buy and maintain than those powered by diesel but that the increased expenses are offset somewhat over the long run by lower fuel costs.

"Not only is this an important step for air quality, it sets the bar for other transportation agencies to follow," said Joe Lyou, president of the Coalition for Clean Air, a statewide organization based in Los Angeles. "Now when an MTA bus pulls up, you don't run away anymore from the huge cloud of exhaust."

The last diesel coach is a 40-foot New Flyer purchased in 1998. It operated out of the MTA's Venice division, where it logged many of its 383,180 miles on routes along Wilshire Boulevard, Venice Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway.

No. 3004 was ceremoniously retired and towed away during an event at the MTA's Support Services Center in downtown Los Angeles. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, MTA Chief Executive Art Leahy, other elected officials and members of the authority's board of directors were on hand.

Officials plan to auction the vehicle, which is probably worth a few thousand dollars because of its parts. Before the sale, however, mechanics will disable the engine so no one can operate it again.

"We've been on this path for 20 years or longer," Leahy said. "What this means is that we are not importing as much foreign fuel to run our bus system and we are running on much cleaner fuel. It's a great day for Los Angeles."

Statistics from the American Public Transportation Assn. show that the MTA is well ahead of Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, New York and other large metropolitan areas in replacing diesel buses with more environmentally friendly vehicles.

According to the association, a couple of dozen smaller transit agencies, including those in Oxnard and Santa Barbara, have already replaced their entire fleets, while other agencies across the nation have made significant progress.

"I applaud Metro," said William Millar, president of the transportation association. "It is important to note that this achievement did not happen overnight. L.A. Metro and its predecessor organizations have been at the leading edge of clean bus fuel technology for about a quarter of a century."

The Southern California Rapid Transit District and the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission began experimenting with alternative fuels such as natural gas, methanol and ethanol in the late 1980s. Those tests continued after both agencies became the MTA in 1993.

The MTA took delivery of its first natural gas buses in 1995. The technology has increased the price of a standard bus by about $50,000. Diesel coaches cost around $400,000.

Since then, the authority's clean-fuel buses have traveled about a billion miles, and officials say they regularly receive inquiries from transit agencies around the world interested in shifting to alternative power sources.

Though the MTA has converted its fleet, the agency still contracts with private bus lines that rely on diesel fuel. Of the 187 private buses, 82 have diesel engines, but transit officials say those should be phased out in the next several years.

dan.weikel@latimes.com

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