By all means, city officials should be looking to the future as they consider the purchase of new buses for the T public transit system.
At their meeting tonight, Lawrence city commissioners will receive an update on replacing the current diesel-fueled buses with vehicles that run on alternative fuels, perhaps compressed natural gas or a renewable source such as biodiesel. Alternative fuel buses likely would cost more ($480,000 per vehicle compared with $320,000 per diesel-powered vehicle, the city estimates), but if the city receives an expected $1.9 million in transit funding from the federal stimulus package, this would be a great way to invest some of it.
There are, of course, issues to be investigated before the city makes a decision. Before choosing compressed natural gas vehicles, for instance, the city needs to have a way to refuel the buses. Building a city facility to refuel the buses would be expensive, and the opportunity to provide that refueling service might be a nice business opportunity for a private contractor. Whatever vehicles the city chooses need to be reliable and preferably have a proven track record, like the compressed natural gas buses used at Kansas City International Airport.
The city shouldn’t go too far into uncharted territory, but it doesn’t make sense to stick with old technology that likely will be outdated before the new buses are retired. New technologies have the potential to lower fuel costs and reduce emissions — an advantage that any driver following one of the diesel-powered buses surely can appreciate.
The current economic downturn has been a burden to the city in many ways, but as several observers have pointed out, sometimes crises also present opportunities. Using federal funds to offset the cost of buying more modern, energy-efficient T buses could be one of those opportunities.