Butler Transit gets $2.4 million for fueling station

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A $2.4 million federal grant to equip the Butler Transit Authority with a natural gas fueling station was thrilling news for authority executive John Paul.

But the project is far from "go."

"This is something that's full of complications," Mr. Paul said.

The federal grant, through the Federal Transit Administration's 2012 Clean Fuels program, will be used to retrofit the authority's Butler Township transit center so it can accommodate compressed natural gas.

To operate a CNG fueling station at the transit facility at Pullman Center, just outside Lyndora, the facility will require a sophisticated detection system for leaks of the volatile natural gas. The grant will be used in part to construct that detection system, as well as to build the station at the necessary specifications, such as automatic doors and fans that can evacuate gas from 33,000 square feet of space.

The concept is to allow BTA to operate natural gas-powered, 45-foot coach buses from the transit facility, which would be equipped to provide fuel both for those buses as well as for the public at large.

The transit agency has secured federal money totaling about $2.2 million for the purchase of the buses -- the hope is to acquire four to six 55-passenger vehicles at a cost of about $700,000 each -- but a 20 percent matching grant from the state is needed.

The next step is to apply for the state money.

But a part of that process is persuading the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to allocate the coveted grant money. Mr. Paul said he's hoping to convince state officials of the worthiness of the project by virtue of a tentative commitment from a private company interested in partnering with the project.

He said he's not in a position to identify the private enterprise as yet, but the discussions involve covering the operational costs for 10 years. Annual costs would amount to about $185,000.

That aspect of the project would involve running the new buses into Pittsburgh.

"We believe the ridership, the market, is there," Mr. Paul said. The concept is that the bus would run south from Butler directly to the North Shore, where the drop-off would be at the new T station.

"This is the grand plan, and it's what we're working toward," he said.

The transit authority had been awarded a $1 million grant from the state Department of Environmental Resources but returned the money when it was clear that the project would not be able to proceed as quickly as Mr. Paul had hoped.

"There were just too many shortfalls," he said, noting that the money was returned January.

In the meantime, PennDOT agreed to apply on the transit authority's behalf for the $2.4 million grant that just was awarded.

"I was not eligible to apply for it on my own because we're a small rural transit agency,'' he said.

Meanwhile, he's been working on agreements to find private operational money.

If Mr. Paul can win the DEP grant and use it as a match to the federal $2.4 million grant, funding would be in place to make the facility changes that are necessary to complete the project. Then, the next step would be winning federal transit administration approval to allow the facility to be used by the general public.

"It's not as simple as it would look," he said. "There are legal issues with federal transit to resolve."

If all the pieces fall in place, the transit authority would have a CNG station in Butler Township and would run buses into Pittsburgh, following the Route 68 corridor. Park-n-ride stops would be established at various locations along the route. And the public would have access to the fueling station -- which, as things stand, would be the only public CNG station in the county.

"It's a great concept and I believe it can work, but there are a lot of steps that need to be completed," he said.

Application to DEP will be made midway through 2013.

"It's a slow process,'' he said.

Transportation - neigh_north

Karen Kane: kkane@post-gazette.com or 724-772-9180.


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