RTA: Welcome to the EcoVillage

by Chuck Hoven

(Plain Press, May 2006) On Tuesday, May 2nd at 5:30 PM, Regional Transit Authority (RTA) officials will come to Zone Recreation Center at W. 65th and Lorain in the heart of the EcoVillage to hold hearings on a proposed fare increase. The proposed fare increases range from 25¢ to 50¢ per ride. Currently local fare costs $1.25 per ride and express fares are $1.50 per ride.

RTA cites rising fuel costs as its reason for the need to raise fares. Anyone who has gone to a gas station lately can understand their argument. However, raising the cost of a bus ride in Cleveland is a serious step that should only be taken as a last resort. Many Clevelanders are transit dependent. The transit dependent are often those whom can least afford to take another hit on their already strained budgets.

RTA and its board of trustees have a responsibility to assure the public they serve that they have done due diligence and explored all options available to them before taking the drastic step of raising fares.

It would be appropriate for those attending the RTA hearing in the EcoVillage to raise the question of possible savings from converting RTA’s fleet of 650 buses, or a portion of the fleet, to allow the use of biodiesel fuel.

One local company, Great Lakes Brewing Company on Market Street in Ohio City, has already made the conversion. Great Lakes Brewing Company’s delivery truck, a semi, runs on straight vegetable oil (SVO), says Great Lakes Brewing Company Marketing Coordinator Kami Dolney.

Donley explains that the semi needs diesel fuel only at the start and end of each trip. Since SVO costs Great Lakes Brewing Company $1.11 per gallon, compared to the March price of diesel fuel of $2.60 per gallon, the savings in using the alternative fuel are considerable. The semi also gets slightly better mileage using the SVO fuel. As a result, Donley says Great Lakes Brewing saves 50% on its overall fuel cost for the delivery truck.

The SVO fuel also has other advantages. According to Donley, it burns cleaner, lubricates better, is a renewable resource from farm crops and contributes to the country’s energy independence.

In making its conversion to the straight vegetable oil fuel, Great Lakes Brewing Company’s co-owner and founder Daniel Conway worked with Ray Holan of BioDiesel Cleveland, a local company. Great Lakes Brewing used vegetable oil from its own Brew Pub, thus saving cost on the price of the vegetable oil.

But even if you don’t have your own restaurant, waste vegetable oil fuel is considerably cheaper than diesel fuel.  BioDiesel Cleveland’s Holan says, “Our vegetable oil fuel cost us about $1.75/gallon. Converting a vehicle the size of the Freightliner tractor-trailer runs about $2,500.  There is plenty of plant oil (i.e. corn, soy, cottonseed, palm, coconut, peanut, etc.) to go around.  I came across a study some time ago that estimated that 1/3 of the U.S.diesel fleet could be run on just the WASTE vegetable oil (i.e. previously used cooking oil) in America.”

RTA spokesperson Jerome Masek says, “The cost (of diesel fuel) changes often, as the price of fuel at the pump changes. Because it uses ‘clean’ diesel, RTA pays 12-14 cents more per gallon over traditional diesel fuel.” When one considers RTA is paying more for clean diesel the potential savings are even greater.

RTA spokesperson Masek says that of RTA’s 650 buses,  “roughly 20 percent use consolidated natural gas (CNG). The other 80 percent use ultra-low sulfur clean diesel.” This means that roughly 520 buses are using the ultra-low sulfur clean diesel fuel that Masek refers to. If the price of that fuel is 12-14¢ per gallon more than regular diesel, then one can assume at March prices quoted above, the cost is roughly $2.72 per gallon. As the price of diesel fuel continued to rise in April, one can safely assume that the waste vegetable oil costs at least a $1 per gallon less than the diesel fuel.

While the number of gallons of diesel fuel RTA consumes yearly was not available at press time, RTA’s website indicates that RTA buses travel 24.5 million service miles per year.  If diesel buses travel 80% of those miles (19.6 million) - even at a generous 10 miles per gallon for each bus - that represents at least 1,960,000 gallons of fuel. At a conversion cost of roughly $2,500 per vehicle, RTA could conceivably convert the roughly 520 diesel vehicles in its fleet for a cost of $1,300,000, less than its potential savings.

At a dollar savings per gallon through the use of straight vegetable oil or waste vegetable oil, even if one considers that some diesel fuel would still be needed for the beginning and end of each trip, it would seem the conversion would pay for itself in a year and then real savings would begin.

The remaining question revolves around the availability of bio-diesel fuel. RTA Media Relations Manager Jerome Masek says, “Because their use is not yet widespread, the use of these alternative fuels would cost much more than the fuels now being used. Therefore, their use is not being considered.”

BioDiesel Cleveland’s Holan had a different opinion when asked about the feasibility of converting RTA’s bus fleet to biodiesel and the availability of fuel once the conversion is made. “Our (BioDiesel Cleveland’s) supply is growing, but limited at present,” he said. “However, Full Circle Fuels in Oberlin (a fuel supply company created by BioDiesel Oberlin) could assist with the upgrades.  The issue would be assuring a continued supply of filtered waste vegetable oil. With Full Circle Fuel’s resources, I suspect that could be handled.”

With recent increases in diesel fuel prices and new start up companies now venturing into developing alternative fuel made from straight vegetable oil or waste vegetable oil, RTA should re-examine its position on this alternative fuel.

 Perhaps to assure a supply of waste vegetable oil, RTA could convert its fleet in stages. The increased business would give local firms an incentive to increase their supplies of waste vegetable oil.

RTA’s Board of Trustees should at least explore this option.

If they are successful,
•    many RTA customers will benefit from the reduced cost
•    a future continuing fare increases can also be avoided, as the cost of diesel fuel will likely continue to rise
•    perhaps a fare increase that would create hardship for many low-income residents could be avoided
•    all Clevelanders would also benefit with cleaner air
•    restaurants and food processing centers will have a place to send their waste vegetable oil.

The RTA public hearing  at Zone Recreation Center on Tuesday evening, May 2 - in the EcoVillage that RTA helped to create with its new W. 65th Rapid Station -  would be an appropriate place to begin this discussion.


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