Suburban drivers keep polluting the region’s air. Now, environmentalists say Metro should buy new buses to clean up their mess.

Flonorial Merritt vividly remembers when he worked the service lanes at the Bladensburg Garage in Northeast D.C. nearly 30 years ago. In the early ’70s, before air pollution billowed into the national consciousness, he came to expect the dizzying odor of diesel exhaust fumes from the hundreds of buses that rolled in each day to gas up and get repaired.

“You could find the service lanes just by smell,” says Merritt, now a supervisor at the sprawling garage complex that services up to 277 Metrobuses daily. “Now, if the buses weren’t making noise, you wouldn’t even know the service lanes were here.”

Today, the stench of exhaust fumes no longer assaults visitors to the 5-acre center, where buses in various states of repair roll in 24 hours a day. Nature even has a small presence at the garage, in the form of rogue pigeons under a parked bus. Sure, the ground is mottled with black oil stains, and the walls and ceilings are sooty. But Merritt says advances in diesel engine technology, diesel fuel composition, and on-board pollution controls have helped keep tons of acrid gray exhaust smoke out of the region’s air—and made the garage a more pleasant place to work in the process.

Peering into the greasy innards of a diesel engine, Merritt explains how 70 percent of the exhaust in the newer buses, which now make up 60 percent of Metro’s fleet, is recycled within the engine. Particulate traps catch the bigger bits of pollution, he says, and catalytic converters work with special low-sulfur diesel fuel to emit cleaner exhaust.

Despite the Metrobus improvements, air quality in the Washington area remains among the worst on the East Coast, according to Kristeen Gaffney of the Environmental Protection Agency’s mid-Atlantic bureau. The same suburbs that have sucked tax dollars out of D.C. for 30 years have pumped particulate matter back in, and each new subdivision means more cars on the road—and more problems in local air quality.

Metrobuses—which, of course, help lower the number of cars on the road—simultaneously continue to spew at least some pollution in their wake. Merritt knows this, but he’s been disappointed by the performance of the alternative-fuel vehicles he’s tested. He wants the city to do more to keep pollution out of the skies, but he doesn’t know how to get rid of the time-tested diesels.

Local environmental groups say they have the answer. District chapters of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Sierra Club are waging a “Clean Bus Campaign” to convince the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to switch from diesel buses to cleaner compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles.

Don’t hold your breath. Metro officials say they have no plan to change course in the near future. The board is awaiting shipment of 230 more cleaner-burning diesel buses this spring and is scheduled to order another 130 in the next two years. (Cleaner-burning buses have emission-reducing equipment and use low-sulfur fuel, which also cuts down on pollution.) But other alternatives, like diesel-electric hybrids, are barely on Metro’s radar screen.

Jack Requa, Metro’s chief operating officer for bus services, says it all comes down to money. A shift to CNG buses, he says, would be so expensive that it would slow Metro’s plan to steadily update all 1,300 of its buses with clean diesel engines. Merritt says the newer diesel buses being purchased are 60 percent cleaner than the older ones in the fleet.

But to the environmental groups, as well as some D.C. officials, CNG buses are the best option for a city struggling to meet federal air quality standards. The air in D.C. does not meet federal standards for ground-level ozone, a major ingredient in smog, and will likely fall short of a new federal standard for particulate matter—soot—that will take effect in two years. Although CNG buses are not zero-emission, says NRDC spokesperson Elliot Negin, they are the prime choice among commercially available options. Negin and his like-minded colleagues have met with Requa and Ward 1 D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham, who also sits on Metro’s board. There’s some interest in exploring ways to corral federal funding for a CNG project, says Negin, but solid action is far off.

“Part of the problem is inertia, and there is an institutional bias against doing anything differently,” Negin says. “Legally, [Metro is] doing all the right things. The buses on the streets meet federal standards. But they have to do better.”

CNG may be compressed, but it’s definitely not cheap. At $350,000 apiece, CNG buses cost $50,000 more than their diesel counterparts. Requa says Metro’s current budget allows for 324 diesel buses to be purchased between 2003 and 2006, whereas only 235 CNG buses could be purchased in that time, because of both their higher cost and the need to spend several million dollars to build CNG fueling facilities. Reducing public transportation capacity by 89 buses could translate into a morning rush hour featuring even more of those pollution-belching SUVs that CNG advocates hate.

The Washington region can’t afford to lose any seats in the face of projected increases in bus ridership, Requa says. Metrobuses already carry 475,000 riders every day, and Metro expects that number to rise as it expands bus routes and adds amenities like fare boxes that can take farecards.

So the idea of changing to CNG does little to speed Requa’s pulse. “We would have to modify one facility to CNG, buy the buses, and the money we would spend on that would lower the number of buses we could buy,” Requa says. “It’s too late to make a change. We are not against CNG, but there is a lot of money required to make the transition. We don’t see the short-term investment being cost-effective.”

Requa also has concerns about CNG storage. The existing diesel fueling stations tend to be in densely populated neighborhoods, which could be in harm’s way if the stations were altered to store high-pressure CNG. He cites Los Angeles, Akron, and Baltimore-Washington International Airport as examples of sites where CNG-sparked explosions or fires have caused extensive damage.

Instead, Metro plans to buy the cleanest-burning diesel engines available, use high-grade gas, and improve and replace older buses. Metro is also testing diesel-electric hybrid buses in a partnership with Falls Church and might even get a couple for its transit service. But Negin says that for Metro to opt for diesel-electric hybrids over regular diesel is like “switching from Marlboros to Marlboro Lights. Diesel exhaust is still carcinogenic.”

The NRDC and Sierra Club point to a host of other cities using CNG vehicles to combat dirty urban air. New York, which has the largest mass transit bus fleet in the nation, has promised that its next bus order will be nearly half natural gas or diesel-electric hybrid buses. Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Tempe, Ariz., are no longer buying diesel buses, and NRDC says Albuquerque, N.M.; Austin, Texas; Boston; Dallas; Fort Worth, Texas; Sacramento, Calif.; San Diego; Syracuse, N.Y.; Tacoma, Wash.; and Toronto all are committed to replacing their older diesel buses with natural-gas-powered buses. But few of these cities are as dependent on public transportation—or as cash-strapped—as Washington.

Unlike Metro—a tri-jurisdictional body representing D.C., Maryland, and Virginia—the District’s Department of Public Works has been making efforts to move to the newfangled vehicles. Five years ago, the city got about $1 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation and $250,000 from Washington Gas to pay for vehicles and special fueling facilities, according to Chuck Clinton, director of the D.C. Energy Office. It purchased more than 100 alternative-powered cars and light trucks for its fleet. Montgomery County also has several CNG vehicles.

“The initial costs are a little higher [than diesel], but that is offset by the lower maintenance and fuel costs,” argues Clinton. “We are building a fairly substantial infrastructure that would fuel CNG, but we need more vehicles to make it cost-effective.”

NRDC members note that D.C. could get help paying for a CNG conversion. Negin says there are a number of federal programs that help localities pay for alternative-fuel projects—and Metro has availed itself of exactly none of them. The U.S. Departments of Transportation and Energy, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, could provide millions of dollars each year to help fund a conversion to alternative-powered vehicles.

Requa says his staff is looking into whether Metro is eligible for any of these programs. Negin, along with Graham and Mark Wenzler of the Sierra Club’s New Columbia Chapter, plan on meeting with D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton to get some federal money to convert a diesel fueling station to CNG, or maybe work with a private gas company to have one built.

At-Large D.C. Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who chairs a subcommittee of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Air Quality Committee, is downright expansive about using compressed gas. He says Metro has “not been very creative” in attempting to make some real headway in the region’s pollution problem.

“This is a major fleet and an opportunity to affect emissions,” Mendelson says. “We need to set a public example. We have to impress people with the fact that we have an air-quality problem. It’s a harder sell for the government to tell you to stop polluting when the city is not doing anything.”

Metro’s ideal solution to its diesel problem is a Space Age technology that lies much farther down the road: fuel cells. These batterylike fueling systems, which are in the first stages of production, create electric currents using hydrogen and oxygen gas as fuel. Their only emission is water vapor. They could become the magical Energizers that would keep the city going and going with no added pollution, Requa says.

“We anticipate that fuel cells appear to be the best viable alternative in the future to produce a zero-emissions service,” Requa says, estimating that the technology will be available in about 10 years. “We will reduce emissions now until we can meet our goal.”

Negin says that this kind of talk shows how Metro’s excuses keep going and going and going. “These guys are talking about pie in the sky and not thinking about what we can do now,” he insists. “CNG can be a bridge to fuel-cell buses, because natural gas can be used to power fuel cells.”

“If we wait for the fuel cells, we are waiting 10 years,” says Mendelson, speaking on his cell phone while waiting—appropriately enough—for his car’s emissions inspection to begin. “What will we do between now and then? Let’s get the best technology we can right now.” CP