Within the next fiscal year, select Coastal Regional Coaches could be used to test cost-cutting measures through alternative fuel sources.
Under the plan, 13 of the rural transportation vehicles would be retrofitted to run on either propane or compressed natural gas, said Barbara Hurst, director of transit for the Coastal Regional Commission.
“I’d be really happy to get the fuel costs contained so that we can get more service at a lesser cost,” Hurst said. Currently, the group’s 81 15-passenger shuttle buses, eight- to 13-passenger vans and conversion cars each require about 50 gallons of gas per day.
“Our fuel bill, as you can imagine, on these transit buses is pretty high,” she said. “When gas had hit $4 a gallon, it was just horrible.”
The program would offer a short-term analysis of the alternatives, determining which works best and how much money the measures would save the group, which covers more than 5,100 square miles of terrain.
“I don’t want to order a change to either propane or compressed natural gas without doing my homework and making sure this is going to save some money,” Hurst said.
The pilot program would determine whether retrofitting the vehicles, which would run anywhere between $5,000 and $12,000 each, leads to long-term savings.
Hurst estimated the alternative fuels would cost between $1.75 and $2 per gallon, saving about $2 per gallon when compared to current gasoline prices between $3.40 and $3.50.
With compressed natural gas, finding fill stations in the region creates a large challenge.
“My understanding is that propane is a little more prevalent in that you have propane companies around here already,” she said.
Because the transportation officers still are seeking necessary resources and a possible partner for the program, Hurst does not have a time frame for the launch.
The program, which shuttles riders both within and between Liberty, Bryan, Long, Bulloch, Camden, Chatham, Effingham, Glynn, McIntosh and Screven counties, began last year and has provided residents between 160,000 and 200,000 rides since last July.
It is funded by Federal Transit Administration funds, participating counties and cities, and rider fares. Raising fare rates — currently $3 per trip within county and an additional $3 per county entered — would happen only as a last resort, Hurst said.
The 13 vehicles that may be used for the program are replacements for vehicles that need to be removed from service after reaching 100,000 miles or five years in compliance with Federal Transit Administration and Georgia Department of Transportation guidelines.
When the program launched, it assumed usage of many older vehicles from existing transit operations in Bryan, Long and Camden counties in addition to purchasing another 39 with stimulus funds.
“As service grows, so does the fuel cost,” Hurst said. “It defeats the purpose if the cost goes up as much as the ridership.”