By SWATHI NARAYANAN For Reporting Texas
Capital Metro is phasing out the familiar orange-and-white UT Shuttle buses and replacing them with swanky new blue models that will be more environmentally-friendly.
Among the happy commuters is Alexis Schuck, a freshman at UT’s College of Natural Sciences. She takes the shuttle five days a week to the Jewish Community Center on Hart Lane in Northwest Hills, where she works as a counselor for elementary school kids.
“I think the biggest difference is the seats. They are much more cushioned,” Schuck said. “The new buses are much quieter, the engine is not as loud and the air-conditioning is very nice,” she added.
The new buses, which were introduced April 6, are getting good reviews for their updated amenities, and they also play a part in a regional effort to control smog pollution in the face of rapid population growth. Failure to keep a lid on smog could mean crippling economic consequences over the next several decades.
The old buses have been in operation since 1998 and have reached the end of their useful life, said Dottie Watkins, vice president, bus and paratransit services at Cap Metro. They will be fully phased out by the beginning of 2017.
The new buses come with many safety and comfort features. Besides those cushioned seats, they have separate air-conditioning systems for the driver and passengers. Security cameras will record exactly what happened if there is an incident or accident. One of the cameras is rear-facing, which will help when the driver is backing up the bus. There is also a camera at the back door that will automatically display an image on the dashboard when the bus stops, so the driver can make sure all the passengers have entered or exited. On the old buses, drivers used mirrors to check the back doors.
Under the hood, the new buses have cleaner diesel engines. “It has got diesel particulate filters and exhaust after treatments that make sure that the exhaust from the buses is as clean as possible,” Watkins said.
According to Cap Metro, the new buses get 4.18 miles per gallon compared to 3.41 miles per gallon for the old ones. Emissions of nitrogen oxide, which reacts with atmospheric oxygen to produce ozone, have declined from 4.0 to 0.2 grams per brake horsepower hour (the amount of pollutants per unit of energy output from the engine); particulate matter emissions dropped from 0.1 to 0.01 grams per brake horsepower hour.
Replacing old engines with new, cleaner models is a key element in regional efforts to reduce air pollution despite rapid growth. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population in the Austin–Round Rock metropolitan area grew 15.5 percent between 2010 and 2014. The number of registered vehicles in the area exceeded 800,000 as of January. With more than 100 people moving to the area every day, that number will only grow larger.
“We continue to grow at a very rapid pace and put more and more cars on the road. We still need to be aware of our actions and take measures to reduce our emissions,” said Sarah Holland, director of Clean Air Force of Central Texas, a group that coordinates effort to improve air quality.
So far, the strategy is working. Austin “is meeting all the applicable air quality standards,” said David Brymer. director of the air quality division at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
The U.S. Environment Protection Agency sets the standards for air quality. In October, the agency released new ozone limits. Ozone, also known as smog, can cause respiratory problems if inhaled for a long time.
The new rules set ozone limits at 70 to 75 parts per billion. The Austin area’s ozone level stands at 68 parts per billion.
The main reason Austin has kept air pollution in check has been the replacement of older, dirtier vehicles and equipment with newer versions that meet stricter federal emission standards, said Andrew Hoekzema, air quality program manager for the Capital Area Council of Governments. “On-road sources like cars, trucks, buses make up about half of the emissions from our region that contribute to high ozone levels,” he said.
Long-term, Austin’s ozone levels have declined by more than 1 ppb (parts per billion) per year, on average, dating back to 1999, when the reading was 89 ppb. “This trend is expected to continue, although at a slower pace,” Hoekzema said.
Failing to maintain that success could have dire consequences. According to a report released last year by the Capital Area Council of Governments, breaching the 70-75 ppb ozone standard could prevent the expansion of manufacturing concerns such as Samsung Electronics or cement maker Texas Lehigh and delay infrastructure improvements and highway construction projects. How it works is this: if Austin exceeds federal ozone standards, a number of new, more restrictive, federal regulations would be put into place. Some of regulations would be continued for more than 20 years after the Austin came back into compliance. These include requirements that operators of existing facilities retrofit their equipment with more stringent pollution control systems, which will increases the cost of doing business here.
“This could cost the local economy $21.3-$37.9 billion through 2046,” the report concluded.
Several days a year, most recently on April 23, ozone does reach levels considered “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality declares an Ozone Action Day. People with chronic lung disease, as well as the elderly and young children, who are particularly sensitive to ozone, are advised to decrease outdoor activity.
According to the commission, over the past five years, there have been an average of four Ozone Action Days per year for the Austin area — nine in 2011, five in 2012 and 2013, and one in 2014 and 2015. Because the Environment Protection Agency toughened its ozone standard last year, the number of Ozone Action Days is expected to increase in 2016.
Cap Metro could afford the new buses thanks to a state program that provides financial assistance in buying new, low-emission vehicles, Brymer said. The TCEQ gave Cap Metro a grant of $1,739,000, or $37,000 per bus, for a total of 47 buses.
Cap Metro has bigger plans.
“Cap Metro believes the next step for us in terms of vehicle technology are full electric buses,” Watkins said. “We hope in the next few years to identify some funding to start a pilot project to have all electric buses.”
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