Making It Easier for Public Fleets to Adopt Use of Alternative Fuel Vehicles

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, left, and Mayor Eric Garcetti sit inside a police car during a news conference announcing the city's transition to green energy vehicles for its fleet in September 2015.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, left, and Mayor Eric Garcetti sit inside a police car during a news conference announcing the city's transition to green energy vehicles for its fleet in September 2015. Nick Ut / AP Photo

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

So long as state and local governments are willing to get creative with funding mechanisms, a two-to-three year return on investment is easily attainable, National Association of Regional Councils environment committee members discussed on Monday.

WASHINGTON — La Porte, Indiana, was flirting with bankruptcy in 2013, when the city opted to begin replacing its gas-powered public transit fleet with liquefied petroleum gas, or propane, vehicles.

“We found them to be cheaper replacements,” said Mayor Blair Milo on Monday, during the National Conference of Regions environment committee meeting in the nation’s capital.

By obtaining federal grants through the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) Improvement program, La Porte established an 80-20 percent match with the city only on the hook for 20 percent of the new vehicles’ cost. Now La Porte operates Indiana’s first completely alternative fuel fleet, Milo said.

Initially the city had an intergovernmental agreement with the Indiana Department of Transportation to fill up its AFVs at the state’s station, but it’s since purchased its own fueling station for further operational cost savings.

Simultaneously, La Porte has used Northern Indiana Public Service Company grants to completely cover the cost of any electric vehicle charging stations it’s installed.

The city’s balanced approach to deploying AFVs and the infrastructure they require is a model for the National Association of Regional CouncilsFleets for the Future (F4F) project, which is working with regional councils and affiliated Clean Cities coalitions to launch one national and five regional bulk procurement plans. F4F’s goal: simplify AFV procurement through aggregated purchasing that eliminates the need for individual cities to issue requests for proposal, said Kelly Gilbert, director of Clean Cities at the Kansas City-based Metropolitan Energy Center.

MEC is assisting the Mid-America Regional Council in Kansas City to implement one of F4F’s five regional procurements overcoming cost and other barriers to transitioning to AFVs. The other regional procurements are around Washington D.C., Boston, Dallas-Ft. Worth and Tucson—an endeavor comprising almost 100 Clean Cities coalitions.

Regardless of where regional officials stand on AFVs’ ability to curtail climate change, much like expanding bike paths and increasing access to public transportation, they make cities more competitive in attracting residents, Milo said.

“Using alternative fuels requires a little bit of a leap of faith,” said Barry Carr, coordinator of Clean Communities of Central New York.

For starters, there’s seemingly no end to the list of light- or heavy-duty alternative fuel automobiles to choose from: ethanol, methanol, biodiesel, propane, natural gas, electric, and even hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. And dealerships like Ford don’t just make them that way, instead relying on third-party outfitters to make the necessary modifications.

F4F seeks “a 10 percent-plus discount based on volumes,” Carr said, with a template to facilitate ease of ordering from the federal to the school district level.

Faced with diminishing budgets, not all state and local governments will have the same types of grants at their disposal when “greening” their fleets to be more sustainable and resilient.

“We really need to work hand-in-hand with the private sector,” said Leah Boggs, senior environmental planner at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

“It’s important for us to expand the economies of scale because that will help us buy-down the infrastructure,” she added.

Cities from Washington, D.C., to Tucson, Arizona, are also eagerly awaiting their Volkswagen Clean Air Act civil settlements for additional infrastructure funding.

Vehicle-leasing companies or banks fronting them the money often accept tax credits on electric vehicles to buy-down costs, Carr said, and initial charging stations are often offered for free or at reduced rates. The right grants can cover 50 to 70 percent of the incremental costs along with bulk discounts and a 50 cent-per-gallon savings on fuel after purchase. That means a two to three year average payback on investment, and the average age of a public fleet vehicle is 11 years old, he added.

That’s on top of the social impact of showing your community you care about the environment and saving taxpayer dollars, said Colleen Crowninshield, clean cities manager at the Pima Association of Governments in the Tucson area.

If CMAQ grants can’t be applied to a jurisdiction’s situation, governments can go less traditional routes seeking land use or energy savings grants, Boggs said.

Buffalo, New York’s local utility offers $3 million a year for natural gas vehicle projects, Carr said.

Some states and localities are also looking to upgrade their public safety and emergency fleets, though there are nuances. La Porte’s police department won’t use ethanol cruisers, after finding the fuel hinders their ability to accelerate and increases wear and tear, and natural gas tanks often take up too much needed trunk space.

Still Rio Rico, Arizona’s fire district processes grease into biodiesel to run vehicles on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, a binational Environmental Protection Agency-funded project that’s a huge fuel cost savings, Crowninshield said.

Philadelphia’s fire department is eyeing emergency vehicles that run on natural gas because such stations have propane that keeps them operable when the power goes out during, say, intense storms, Carr said.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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