Amtran to get 16 new buses

Vehicles will run on compressed natural gas

When Amtran first learned in early 2016 that PennDOT would build a compressed natural gas fueling station at the bus authority’s terminal on Fifth Avenue, officials wondered how well they could take advantage of the gift — given that Amtran’s entire

26-bus fleet was powered by diesel fuel.

A year ago, after PennDOT and the Federal Transit Administration together committed about $3.1 million, Amtran ordered its first six CNG buses for delivery in the middle of next year.

On Wednesday, two weeks before completion of the CNG station, General Manager Eric Wolf revealed that PennDOT had committed an additional $5.3 million to buy 10 more CNG buses for delivery late next year.

That’s not all: Amtran has applied to the FTA for about $1.6 million for yet three more CNG buses — or, if PennDOT would agree to cover half the cost, enough to leverage six more CNGs, for delivery sometime in 2020 or 2021.

It’s a bonanza of government largesse that could lead to a conversion of Amtran’s fleet in as few as three years from all diesel to almost all CNG — and from old to almost new.

If everything happens according to plan, the fleet would be “in amazing shape,” Wolf said.

The PennDOT funding for the 10 additional buses was offered in lieu of Wolf’s request for money to pay for rehabilitation of eight diesel buses over the next two fiscal years — with the expectation of a request for two additional rehabilitations eventually.

Those rehabilitations would have extended the life of those buses from 12 to about 18 years, Wolf said.

PennDOT officials suggested instead giving Amtran twice as much money to buy new buses — CNGs — to accelerate the conversion to CNG and to provide vehicles that would last twice as long going forward, according to Wolf.

It didn’t take long for Wolf to accept.

“It’s like money that fell from the sky,” said board Chairman Scott Cessna.

When they’re delivered in May or June, the first six CNG buses will replace Amtran’s six 40-year-old GMC buses, which are used for school “tripper” service.

When they’re delivered in November 2018, the next 10 CNGs will replace three 2000 Gilligs, which are “way past their useful life,” and seven 2005 Gilligs, which are beset with frame corrosion, Wolf said.

The remaining six potential CNGs would replace some combination of Amtran’s five remaining 2000 Gilligs, which were rehabilitated in 2015, and two remaining 2005 Gilligs, Wolf said.

That would mean there would be only one old bus left, Wolf said.

All the remaining non-CNG buses at that point would be 2012 diesel-electric hybrids, good until 2024, Wolf said.

“(It would be) a huge change,” Wolf said.

The buses that will be replaced will be sold at auction, with Amtran keeping the proceeds for future bus replacements, Wolf said.

The prospect of wholesale replacement of old buses is a “relief,” after 20 years of worrying about keeping the fleet fresh, Wolf said.

That strain is epitomized by the continued presence of the GMCs, the oldest buses in the country in active revenue service, as far as he knows, Wolf said.

One caveat: Those GMCs were special — built for longevity in a way that

doesn’t happen anymore, Wolf said.

PennDOT is being generous with the CNG money because it’s eager to “deploy” buses to run on fuel provided by the fueling stations it has been building for transit authorities throughout the state, according to Wolf.

The more that happens, “the more successful the project,” he said.

The PennDOT funding could come from federal money the department passes through to authorities like Amtran or from alternative energy funding authorized by Act 89 of 2013, said Erin Waters-Trasatt, PennDOT spokeswoman.

PennDOT has access to about $25 million a year in state money for its CNG public-private partnership, for both station building and bus purchases, Waters-Trasatt said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.