- The Washington Times - Friday, June 21, 2002

A push by Metro's board of directors for a fleet of "cleaner" buses will burn up money that should be spent repairing Metrorail stations across the region, according to transit agency documents.

The board yesterday approved a $1.4 billion plan for 2003 on the condition that no money be spent on natural-gas-burning buses until Metro's budget committee investigates how to pay for the buses at a meeting next month.

Metro's 2003 budget calls for an increase of nearly $18 million to be spent on 100 natural-gas buses and renovations to an Arlington bus garage for refueling the buses money cut from previously approved plans to improve Metrorail stations.

The result will be a "degradation in station appearance" and Metro passengers can expect to see an "increase in cement and tile cracks" at Metrorail stations, according to transit agency documents.

Several members of the board yesterday said they weren't given enough time to analyze where the transit agency was getting the extra cash to pay for the new natural-gas buses.

"The full financial impact of buying the natural-gas buses hasn't been fully understood yet," said board member Decatur W. Trotter of Prince George's County. "The problem we have right now is with the station enhancements."

The District is under a mandate from the Environmental Protection Agency to help clean up the region's air by 2005 or face cuts in transportation funding from the federal government.

Metro has purchased 164 of the natural-gas buses as part of the pollution-fighting efforts. The buses are on the road in select parts of the region where garages have been retrofitted to house and refuel them.

Metro has 1,443 diesel buses fitted with filters and running on low-sulfur fuel to reduce emissions. A recent study by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) found that $94.5 million Metro spent on the "environmentally friendly" natural-gas buses would have been better spent on new diesel buses that could operate just as cleanly and cost about half as much.

Board member Dana Kauffman said he is against purchasing the natural-gas buses because they are more expensive than diesel buses and because of the CARB study findings.

"The interest costs alone for the number of buses called for in the 2003 budget would buy us 14 clean diesel buses," Mr. Kauffman told The Washington Times this week. "We cobbled together money for the new [natural-gas] buses, and that's money that could have been used to improve the maintenance of elevators and escalators."

But board Chairman Christopher Zimmerman repeatedly has supported purchasing more natural-gas buses as a means of guaranteeing cleaner air in the region.

"Compressed natural gas is lower in emissions of nitrogen oxide than diesel. And it is because of nitrogen oxide emissions that the Washington area is in danger of exceeding air quality limits, with possible federal sanctions," he wrote in a letter published in The Washington Post on May 23.

Although the 2003 budget does not call for any fare increases on trains or buses for the eighth consecutive year it does include money to expand the number of parking spaces at Metrorail stations.

The budget asks for taxpayers in Maryland, Virginia and the District to add $17 million to their current $387 million annual payment for subsidizing Metro's operating costs.

The budget also calls for the purchase of 62 new rail cars, known as the series 6000, to be allocated for the Blue Line extension to the Largo Town Center, and for service growth on other lines. Metro has selected New York-based Alstom Transportation Inc. to build the rail cars for $129.2 million an average of $2 million per car.

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