Illustration by Bela Messex.

The Federal Transit Administration granted Santa Cruz Metro $4,830,600 last week for the conversion of 12 diesel-fueled buses to natural gas buses by 2011.

Santa Cruz Metro received notification of the grant, which is part of FTA’s program, “State of Good Repair,” on Oct. 4. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood made the announcement.

“Our goal is to have 100 percent of our natural gas buses on the street at all times, because that will end up saving 12,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions over the lifetime of a single bus,” said Tove Beatty, legislative analyst for the Metro, who wrote and submitted the grant last June.

Beatty said that the conversion would help save the Metro money because natural gas is at least half the price per gallon compared to diesel. Furthermore, the change will decrease Santa Cruz’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Of the 93 buses in the Santa Cruz Metro fleet, 63 are fueled by natural gas, and the rest run on diesel.

Mike Rotkin, who serves on the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit Board, said that by law the buses need to be replaced anyway, but instead of switching to “clean diesel,” like most cities in California are, Santa Cruz Metro wanted to take the extra step by converting to CNG, or compressed natural gas.

“We’ve converted most of our fleet, but we don’t have the money right now to convert the rest,” Rotkin said.

The grant will pay for what the city of Santa Cruz cannot, and by 2011, 12 new buses will be added to the fleet, replacing ones that are about 25 years old. The new ones could easily last 20 years, if not more, said Ellen Pirie, chair of the Metropolitan Transit District Board.

“If for no other reason than the cost of maintenance and repairs, this is a good thing to be doing,” Pirie said. “It’s also important that we use as little oil and gasoline as possible. This allows us to use the alternative of CNG, and it burns cleaner and has a domestic supply.”

Pirie expects that this move will be particularly important to Santa Cruz.

“It’s a community that cares very much about climate change and global warming and energy independence, and this is something that is a positive step on all those issues,” Pirie said.

One thing the grant does not solve, however, is the current fiscal crisis the Metro is suffering due to lack of funding.

“We’re not in any better shape when it comes to operational funding,” Beatty said. “That’s a different ballgame.”

The grant does nothing to pay for more Metro jobs. Rotkin said that even so, any money that can be provided is important because of the switch from diesel to CNG.

“For a lot of years we were telling people, ‘Get out of your cars, use the buses,’” Rotkin said. “Now what’s happened is we actually have more demand than we can provide for with our resources. We want to be able to provide more. Anything we can save by ways of fuel is helping with that process.”