GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority's conversion to natural gas-powered buses should serve as a "great model" for others to follow, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said during a visit here Wednesday.
"What you guys are doing is ground-breaking in every sense of the word," said Hickenlooper, who was the guest of honor for the grand opening of RFTA's new compressed natural gas (CNG) fueling station.
Speaking before a gathering of Roaring Fork Valley elected officials, business and government leaders at RFTA's bus maintenance facility on Wulfsohn Road, Hickenlooper touted RFTA's decision to use CNG as a move in the right direction for the nation's energy future.
"Having inexpensive natural gas that's abundant, cleaner and cheaper than [petroleum-based fuels] is not a bad thing," he said.
However, Hickenlooper and RFTA's chief executive officer, Dan Blankenship, both said that doesn't diminish the desire, especially in this region, for energy producers to be responsible in drilling for natural gas.
"We are working to come up with the appropriate regulations, and we will get it right," Hickenlooper said.
Added Blankenship during his introductory talk Wednesday, "While compelling arguments can be made about the need to produce affordable and abundant supplies of domestic energy, just about everybody wants these resources to be developed in ways that respect and protect the environment."
Hickenlooper also commended RFTA for implementing the nation's first rural bus rapid transit (BRT) system, known as "VelociRFTA."
Once up and running later this year, the new system will provide regular express bus service between Glenwood Springs and Aspen during peak hours.
The $42.6 million BRT expansion has been a commitment for RFTA since area voters authorized the formation of a valleywide rural transportation district, along with a subsequent sales tax to fund the system in 2008.
But the decision to convert to CNG buses didn't start taking shape until the summer of 2011, recalled Blankenship.
"Michael Owsley, who was the chairman of the RFTA board at that time, said, 'Wouldn't it be nice if RFTA had clean and quiet CNG buses idling in front of [Aspen's] Rubey Park Transit Center, instead of noisy diesel buses?'
"I rattled off a dozen reasons why I thought CNG buses wouldn't work at high altitude, and I was hoping that would be the end of the matter," Blankenship admitted.
Owsley, a Pitkin County commissioner, and others persisted, though, backed by research provided by organizations such as the Aspen Strategy Center, the Colorado Energy Office and Clean Energy Economy for the Region. Eventually, RFTA officials were convinced, Blankenship said.
Especially given the savings in fuel costs, projected to be around $200,000 annually for CNG compared to diesel, it became an easier decision, he said.
Last March, the RFTA board authorized the eventual purchase of 22 CNG buses. Four of those buses were delivered in January and put into service.
"The new buses were placed into service prior to the Winter X-Games, and have been operating reliably ever since," Blankenship said.
The other 18 are scheduled to be delivered in July, he said.
The CNG conversion has represented a nearly $16.5 million investment by RFTA. Included in that was a $9.4 million Federal Transit Administration grant, $6.6 million in qualified energy conservation bonds, and a $365,000 community investment grant from oil and gas producer Encana.
Owsley said the move toward CNG buses is in line with RFTA's mission of innovation and excellence.
"We have lived up to that mission with this fueling station," Owsley said as Hickenlooper had the honor of flipping the switch to fuel up one of RFTA's buses with natural gas.
"To have the governor recognize our efforts here is a special privilege," Owsley said.
Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky, a proponent for using the natural gas that's produced in western Colorado in this region, was also on hand for the event.
Jankovsky recalled that it was during a Garfield Board of County Commissioners meeting with RFTA officials that he mentioned the county's efforts to convert its own vehicle fleet to natural gas.
"Mike [Owsley] picked up on that, and I'm very pleased he had the wherewithal and vision to push for it," Jankovsky said. "It takes a lot of guts to change, and I'm pleased that this change has happened."