27 year VIA employee Gilbert Perez works to refuel a bus with compressed natural gas.
Gilbert Perez, a 27-year VIA employee, works to refuel a bus with compressed natural gas. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

To support its growing natural gas-powered bus fleet, VIA Metropolitan Transit now has what it’s calling the largest compressed natural gas fueling station in North America at its downtown hub.

On Wednesday morning, VIA officials celebrated the fueling station inside the regional transit authority’s yard at 1720 N. Flores St., south of San Pedro Springs Park.

The station includes 10 fueling lanes that supply compressed natural gas, or CNG, used to fuel VIA’s fleet of 308 CNG buses it has purchased since 2010, with plans to roll out 62 more by the end of 2018.

VIA officials say the bright red buses that run on CNG instead of diesel fuel are helping them save money and reduce air pollution.

“We always say they’re red on the outside and green on the inside,” VIA President and CEO Jeff Arndt said.

VIA is not alone among transit authorities in making the switch away from diesel fuel for buses.

Natural gas made up 23 percent of the nation’s bus transit fleet in 2015, the latest year available, compared to 16 percent in 2007, according to American Public Transportation Association figures published by the Department of Energy.

Still, as of 2015, more than half of U.S. transit buses ran on diesel.

VIA officials say converting its fleet will significantly reduce its emissions of ozone-forming nitrogen oxides.

Efforts to cut emissions are relevant as San Antonio officials prepare to learn by mid-July whether the city will be under stricter regulatory scrutiny for its air not meeting federal health standards.

CNG produces 7 percent fewer global warming 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.

VIA’s fueling station was built by Trillium CNG, a company owned by truck stop operator Love’s. Trade magazine Transport Topics recently called Trillium the second-largest CNG fuel and related services provider in the U.S.

VIA’s station is the largest on the continent the company is aware of, said Jennifer de Tapia, Trillium’s vice president of growth initiatives.

In other major cities such as New York and Boston, stations with four fueling lanes typically serve 200 to 300 vehicles, she said, compared to VIA’s plans to serve more than 500.

The fuel dispensers pump compressed gas into an array of nine tanks on top of each bus. The tanks store 120 gallons of diesel equivalent that allow the buses travel up to 500 miles on a single fill, said Carl Woodby, VIA’s maintenance director.

The $11.1 million CNG fueling station will “absolutely” pay for itself over time, Arndt said.

VIA has been steadily converting most of its fleet of 507 buses from diesel to CNG, with more than half converted so far. It has also slowly expanded its CNG fueling capacity from a portable skid-mounted system.

Arndt said the conversion will save $8.5 million per year in fuel costs starting in 2020. That’s because fuel costs for CNG work out “very roughly” to $1 less per gallon of the equivalent amount of diesel, Woodby said.

All of VIA’s diesel buses will be phased out by the end of 2022, Woodby said.

VIA buys its natural gas from CPS Energy, San Antonio’s municipally owned electric and gas utility, Woodby said.

VIA also operates more than 120 VIAtrans paratransit vans and 12 trolleys that run on propane, he said.

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Brendan Gibbons

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