Fueling Florida’s future with CNG
The JTA overcomes barriers to adoption with innovative partnerships, grants and research
By Charles D. Frazier, Senior Vice President – Chief Operating Officer | Jacksonville Transportation Authority
The pressing need to reduce carbon emissions has led to a boom in adopting green technologies across the transit sector. Striving to be a leader in this space, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority began implementing alternative fuel vehicles eight years ago and has made significant progress in transitioning our fleet to zero-emission vehicles. Today, more than 60% of our fleet, 127 buses, runs on quieter, cleaner, cheaper compressed natural gas. Only 30% of our fleet, 61 buses, is diesel, and we plan to phase them out by 2034. In addition, the JTA owns seven hybrid diesel buses and two battery-electric buses, representing one of the industry’s most diverse fleets and advancing our goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, which aligns with the Biden administration.
CNG’s capabilities match our needs
Because alternative fuel technologies are evolving rapidly, we are uncertain if the majority of our fleet ultimately will be compressed natural gas, electric or something entirely different. For now, we have chosen to invest more substantially in compressed natural gas vehicles because the energy source is compatible with Jacksonville’s large land mass and hot climate.
The JTA began phasing out its diesel fleet with CNG buses eight years ago with the launch of our 58-mile First Coast Flyer Bus Rapid Transit Network in 2015. Since then, we have replaced most of our fixed-route buses with compressed natural gas. Compressed natural gas buses get 400 miles per tank – comparable to diesel’s range, cost less than diesel and do not require diesel particle filters that need routine cleaning and replacement. CNG buses also fuel up similarly to diesel buses, which means CNG vehicles don’t require dramatically different power infrastructure. With interoperable systems, there is no need to modify transit operations and maintenance functions. For example, because a compressed natural gas bus fuels in the same amount of time and is co-located with diesel fueling, the buses can be fueled systematically regardless of the fuel type, reducing the impacts and variables on bus maintenance and operations as they are prepared for service. This is opposed to a diesel and electric fleet, where some would need to be parked and charged for extended periods while the diesel vehicles were quickly fueled at the pump.
On the downside, CNG buses require tank inspections and spark plug and coil replacements, which add to their maintenance cost, and they must be defueled periodically, which is time-consuming. But, overall, compressed natural gas has more pros than cons.
Battery-electric buses may work well in other parts of the country, but we are not yet convinced the technology can cover the amount of service area we need it to cover on one charge while running the air conditioners all day. Currently, the JTA operates one centralized bus facility, which adds to our range anxiety with battery-electric buses. Our five-year strategic plan, MOVE2027, directs us to decentralize with satellite facilities dedicated to our zero-emission technology. On-route battery charging stations are one solution we are considering to help alleviate this concern.
Any technology we adopt presents unique challenges the Authority must be ready to address. In the past eight years, we have overcome infrastructure issues, secured funding and scaled steep learning curves. Below is how we have tackled each one.
Public-private partnerships furnish infrastructure
The JTA’s 2014 public-private partnership with Clean Energy has quickly become a best practice and a model for the industry. Under the $8.1 million agreement, the renewable natural gas provider designed, built and operates a compressed natural gas fueling station on our operations campus and retrofitted two facilities to accommodate the conversion to CNG. In exchange, we agreed to purchase compressed natural gas exclusively from Clean Energy for the 15-year partnership. When the agreement expires, the JTA will own the infrastructure.
The arrangement represents a greenhouse gas reduction of approximately 2,318 metric tons, and by switching to natural gas fuel, the JTA will save an estimated $5.7 million over the life of the agreement. The pump station also is available to the public, with the JTA receiving 11% of all public sales.
The P3 with Clean Energy has been so successful we are considering how the JTA might replicate this partnership with other Jacksonville-area energy providers.
Federal grants provide critical funding
The federal government views innovative partnerships favorably when awarding grants, which is one reason the JTA has received three U.S. Department of Transportation grants since 2019. Most recently, we were awarded a $15.4 million U.S. DOT Low or No Emissions Buses & Bus Facilities Grant Program. The Authority is using the funding to procure 21 more compressed natural gas buses, leaving 40 diesel buses that could be phased out as early as 2034. We also will leverage the grant to invest in and integrate six more electric-powered buses.
Our success in applying for and receiving federal grants is based on three guiding principles:
- Be strategic. Because converting an entire fleet to zero-emission vehicles is expensive, the first impulse may be to go after every piece of funding available. However, we’ve learned not every grant aligns with our goals, and applying can be resource-intensive. So, the JTA’s formal grant committee evaluates each funding opportunity by identifying eligible projects in our pipeline and engaging internal stakeholders and subject matter experts who ultimately will own the project. This systematic, logical process ensures any grant we apply for aligns with departmental and Authority-wide goals and helps us allocate personnel and budgets appropriately.
- Tell the whole story. For instance, our grant application might emphasize how Jacksonville neighborhoods with high rates of respiratory disease would benefit from fewer environmental pollutants due to the new zero-emission rolling stock. Showing how a grant might reach beyond transportation improvements to benefit health and quality of life makes for a more compelling, competitive application.
- Partner with respected institutions. Highlighting partnerships strengthens our application. For example, we might partner with a local health organization to provide meaningful statistics and information about how respiratory diseases affect minority or low-income neighborhoods we serve and how expanding our zero-emission fleet could help these communities breathe easier. Enhancing our applications with this kind of information adds third-party credibility, shows a respected institution supports our funding request and demonstrates the JTA’s ability to collaborate with the community.
Research builds institutional knowledge
We educate ourselves about compressed natural gas and other alternative fuel options by visiting other transit agencies across the country. We also convened a zero-emissions industry forum, where we heard from national and international alternative fuel experts and lean on the American Public Transportation Association to provide insights. But nothing replaces the hands-on experience of operating and maintaining these vehicles in real-time on our own system.
Operating and maintaining a mixed fleet is part of our due diligence strategy. It allows us to work with the technology, measure its range capacity in Florida’s hot climate, maintain it and stress test it. We will use what we learn to make more informed decisions about the future composition of our fleet. Currently, we are researching the possibility of producing our own hydrogen. The capital costs would be substantial, but the JTA could save money in the long run.
Regardless of the alternative fuel vehicles the JTA ultimately invests in, we will always have a diverse fleet, and our workforce is – and will be – expected to know how to safely operate and maintain them all. In addition to investing in and educating our workforce, we invited first responders to an alternative fuel vehicle awareness program on our campus, where they participated alongside our maintenance team, mechanics and operators to learn the ins and outs of the vehicle technologies.
Regular joint training sessions give us confidence that first responders will be well-versed in how best to respond to an emergency involving one of these vehicles. Moving forward, we may increase the frequency of these drills as we continue to diversify our zero-emissions technologies.
Sustainable transportation benefits everyone
As the JTA overcomes barriers, diversifies its fleet and becomes more sustainable, so does the community we serve. After all, that is the ultimate goal. We are proud to play a leading role in helping Northeast Florida combat climate change, be more resilient and improve environmental quality.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Charles D. Frazier
Senior Vice President – Chief Operating Officer
Jacksonville Transportation Authority
Charles Frazier directs the performance of passenger transportation services in the Jacksonville, Florida, metropolitan region. He oversees an annual budget of $175 million and 850 employees who provide public transit service seven days a week to Duval, Nassau, Clay and St. John’s counties. Frazier is responsible for the safety, productivity and accountability of transit operations, including service planning, operations and maintenance of all vehicles related to JTA’s transit system. He is a member of the American Public Transportation Association and, in 2018, was one of 25 industry leaders nationwide appointed to Leadership APTA, the organization’s most prestigious development program.
Contact him at email@example.com or (904) 630-3101.