By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
After years of buying hybrid buses meant to save fuel and reduce emissions, Santa Rosa is now steering clear of the pricey technology.
Next week, city staff will ask the City Council to go back to the basics and buy six new diesel-powered buses — the kind of buses the city hasn’t purchased in years.
It seems paying extra for the hybrids, when stacked up against the newer clean-burning diesel models, hasn’t quite penciled out.
“We got quotes for both. We were absolutely floored. It’s a humongous difference,” said Anita Winkler, the city’s deputy director of transit.
The hybrid buses cost nearly $200,000 more than their diesel counterparts, or about $650,000 each versus about $470,000 for the diesel models. The buses are being purchased entirely with funds from federal and state transportation grants.
If the $2.8 million purchase is approved by the City Council next week, the change would mark a shift away from the city’s long-standing policy of spending top dollar for the greenest bus technologies available.
The change makes sense for several reasons, Winkler said.
By buying the less expensive buses, the city can replace six of its aging diesel buses, some of which are 16 years old, with new cleaner-burning models. If it purchased hybrids, the city would only be able to afford to retire four of the older ones, Winkler said.
The city’s long-term maintenance costs for the hybrids also have turned out to be higher than anticipated. The diesel engines in the hybrids, because they are smaller, are required to be swapped out every 185,000 miles, adding considerable expense. The batteries, capacitors, inverters and high-voltage cables in the hybrids also require mid-life replacement, explained John Merian, the city’s fleet superintendent.
And it’s not like the hybrids have been getting phenomenal gas mileage. They average just over 5mpg, which is better than the older diesel buses at 3.5 mpg, but less than the city had hoped, Merian said.
The newer diesel buses should get more than 4mpg, largely through efforts by the manufacturer to make them lighter, Merian said. They’ll burn cleaner and have better filters to remove pollution from the exhaust, he said.
“They’ve made huge gains in reducing the emission levels and in the efficiencies of the engines, as well,” Merian said.
It’s the city’s second noteworthy step away from hybrids in a week. On Tuesday, the City Council approved selling its four gasoline-hybrid buses to the City of Gardena south of Los Angeles for $600,000, largely because parts have been scarce since the engine manufacturer went bankrupt.
The city still has 11 diesel hybrid buses in its fleet of what will soon be 34. It doesn’t have any plans to scrap those buses, just not to buy any more at the moment, Winkler said.
The city is far from alone in moving away from hybrid bus technology. New York City, which once boasted the largest fleet of hybrid buses in the nation, hasn’t purchased a new one in three years.
But the switch strikes some as a sign the city is backing away from its commitment to being a leader in environmental stewardship.
“If Santa Rosa is really trying to be a climate-conscious city and roll back its carbon footprint, then they’ve got to apply it relentlessly to all of the issues,” said Fred Krueger, a local environmentalist.
Diesel exhaust is a major air pollutant and key factor in rising rates of asthma in urban areas, Krueger said. The state is trying to phase out the use of diesel, so it makes little sense for the city to be going in the opposite direction, he said.
But Merian said the filtering technology on new diesel buses is far superior than just a few years ago.
And calculating the carbon footprint of heavy-duty hybrid systems, including batteries, is profoundly complex, Winkler said.
The decision does not reflect a move away from a commitment to exploring new technologies in the future, Winkler said. The city is going to take a serious look at compressed natural gas, which has been used by the county for years, Winkler said.
“We’re going to be open minded about what’s out there and still be responsible in using the money we’ve got,” she said.