It looks like a school bus. It drives like a school bus. But it doesn't burn gasoline or diesel fuel like a typical school bus.
That's why Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah, was driving it around the Utah State Fairpark parking lot Tuesday.The natural-gas-powered bus, one of 10 owned by the Jordan School District, was on display Tuesday as Cook and the Salt Lake Clean Cities Coalition invited the media to examine several alternative-fuel vehicles now in use along the Wasatch Front.
The press conference was followed Wednesday morning by a Conference on Clear Air at the University of Utah.
Tuesday's event was designed to show that alternative-fuel vehicles are not part of the far-off future: They are in use today by local companies and governmental entities including the Newspaper Agency Corp., Questar Corp., the Salt Lake City Airport Authority and the state of Utah.
Most of the dozen vehicles on display Tuesday use natural gas, but one operates on propane and another on a mix of diesel fuel and natural gas.
The Energy Policy Act of 1992 mandated that federal and state fleets contain a progressively larger number of alternative-fuel vehicles, and those requirements could be extended to municipal governments and private companies in coming years.
Cook said the Wasatch Front could easily meet future federal requirements if 10 percent of the automobiles and buses here operated on alternative fuels. He said about 60 percent of the Salt Lake area's airborne pollutants come from vehicle emissions.
"What we have, I think, are options along the Wasatch Front to meet these regulations," Cook said. "I know that we can clean up our air . . . to make life in Salt Lake even better for all of us."
The public isn't likely to jump on the alternative-fuels bandwagon, however, until automobile manufacturers begin producing large numbers of them - and at affordable prices. Ford, Honda, Toyota, Chrysler, Chevrolet and other automakers are taking small but decided steps in that direction.
Several local transportation managers said Tuesday that alternative-fuel vehicles do cost a lot less to operate because natural gas, propane and other fuels are cheaper than gasoline and diesel fuel.
Robin Erickson, who supervises the fleet of vehicles used by the Newspaper Agency Corp., said the company saved $283,000 in fuel costs last year. Almost 90 percent of NAC's 257 vehicles run on natural gas, which costs just 68 cents a gallon, she said.
Airport officials said they save more than $100,000 a year in fuel costs because many of the shuttle buses that move airline passengers to and from airport parking lots are powered by natural gas.
But the initial cost of these vehicles is so high that most agencies would not be able to buy them without government grants or other assistance.
Ron Sing, transportation director for the Jordan Schools District, said a natural-gas-powered school bus costs about $95,000 compared to $70,000 for a diesel bus. The additional costs have been paid by federal grants, he said.
The school district has 193 diesel-powered buses, 75 gasoline buses and 10 natural gas-powered buses. The cost to fuel a natural gas bus is less than a third the cost of fueling a gasoline-powered bus, Sing said.
Beverly Miller, coordinator for the Clean Cities Coalition, said more clean-burning vehicles are on the way. She said a federal grant is being used to purchase more than a dozen electrically powered bikes for local police departments.
About 2,400 alternative-fuel vehicles are now on the road in Utah.