VIA buses lined in parking spaces at the refueling center.
VIA Metropolitan Transit has elected Fernando Reyes as the new board chair of the transit system. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Nearly $6 million in Volkswagen settlement money will be used to replace older, diesel-powered buses in Bexar County with newer models that run on compressed natural gas and diesel. 

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality announced the first round of grants totaling nearly $14.6 million, which included $5.04 million for VIA Metropolitan Transit and nearly $910,000 for East Central Independent School District, the only entities in the San Antonio area to receive Volkswagen funding so far. 

The funding is part of $61 million earmarked for San Antonio, itself a slice of the $209 million headed for Texas as a result of the settlement between the German car manufacturer, the federal government, and the State of California over the company’s emissions cheating scandal.

The grant funding could be used to replace the buses with zero-emission electric models, some of which VIA already has in service. However, VIA chose instead to use the funding to continue its transition from diesel to compressed natural gas, or CNG, and East Central ISD plans to replace its diesel buses with newer diesel models. 

The funding will allow the transit agency to take 20 diesel buses off the road and replace them with CNG-powered buses, said Andy Scheidt, a public information coordinator for VIA. 

Asked why VIA opted to use the grant funding for CNG buses instead of electric, VIA communications manager Lorraine Pulido said in an email that “electric buses provide great benefits for reducing emissions,” but come with other downsides.

“The current technology provides limited distances between recharging, making them less attractive options for serving an expansive region like San Antonio and Bexar County,” Pulido continued. “Electric vehicles are also significantly more expensive than CNG at this time. The technology is developing quickly and we anticipate that we will incorporate [more] electric vehicles into our fleet in the future.”

Mario Bravo, a project manager for Texas energy with Environmental Defense Fund who has been working on getting more government entities to adopt medium- and heavy-duty electric vehicles, said “the future of transportation is electric.” The grant funding presents an opportunity to avoid falling behind countries like China, which has deployed them at a much faster pace than in the U.S., he said. 

“Replacing diesel buses with natural gas buses does help reduce ozone air pollution, but it increases our carbon pollution,” Bravo said. “Electric buses significantly reduce both.” 

VIA has been steadily converting its bus fleet to CNG for the past several years. Last year, it announced the opening of the largest CNG filling station in North America. At the time, VIA officials told the Rivard Report that it planned to have converted 370 of its more than 500 buses to CNG by the end of 2018. 

Compared to certain types of buses known as clean diesel, CNG buses emit significantly less of the nitrogen oxide pollution that forms ozone pollution – approximately 30 percent, according to this report by New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority. 

Bexar County’s ozone levels have been under stricter scrutiny since last year, when they were declared to be too high to meet federal health standards. Local governments, especially the City, have been working to find ways to reduce ozone emissions ahead of a critical 2020 deadline to avoid more stringent air quality regulations. 

Buses also emit carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas emission fueling rapid global warming. A CNG bus produces 7 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than diesel over its lifetime (from leaving an oil or gas well to burning in a combustion engine), according to the Department of Energy.

For East Central ISD, the grant will allow the district to purchase 20 diesel buses over a two-year period, compared with the typical budget constraints that only allow 12 new buses over that period, Brandon Oliver, marketing and communications director, said in an email. 

The newer diesel buses are significantly cleaner than the older ones in terms of ozone pollution. The oldest bus to be replaced has nearly 30 times the nitrogen oxides emissions of the new engines to be purchased with the grant money, Oliver said. Emissions from even the cleaner models are still 7.5 times higher than the replacement buses. 

“It is a true blessing for our district,” Oliver said.

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.