How green is the city’s fleet?

The trend toward green fleets is strong in American cities big and small. How does Louisville measure up?

We can blame Lexington for a new pressure to get Louisville’s vehicle fleet on the right side of climate meltdown.

Metro Government: just bought nine Ford Escape hybrids. This one just got its 'wings' — the fleur-de-lis decal is on the side of Metro's fleet vehicles.

Metro Government: just bought nine Ford Escape hybrids. This one just got its ‘wings’ — the fleur-de-lis decal is on the side of Metro’s fleet vehicles.

Just a few months ago, in October, representatives of four major gas chuggers in the state’s second-largest city announced a unique partnership to implement a biodiesel program aimed at reducing how much particulate matter gets spewed into the air on behalf of said four entities. It’s part of something called the Green Communities partnership, which is meant to reduce the polluting imprint of the city.

Fayette County Public Schools, Lexington Fayette Urban County Government, Lexington Transit Authority and the University of Kentucky wasted no time implementing the program. The group met four times, hammered out a path to “greening” the fleets by way of the diesel blend currently en vogue and set up pilot programs in the school system. City government switched its equipment to accept a brand of diesel lower in sulfur and other toxins that contribute to the general stink-mash of air pollution, LexTran began moving its buses to biodiesel five at a time and will convert its entire 57-bus fleet roughly one month at a time, and UK pledged to switch its diesel-guzzling machinery to biodiesel. It’s also considering ways to require its private contractors to use some kind of biodiesel mix.

Bam. There you have it. Every piece of this agreement will be in effect by this spring. The process lasted a few months. An efficient move toward efficiency is just reward in itself, though it comes amid more praise: The Green Guide named Lexington the 12th-greenest American city in 2006.

Louisville hasn’t been so expeditious, and as long as our city’s air quality is bad (it’s the automobiles, stupid!), we won’t get on anyone’s “Greenest Cities” list. But it may not be a case of lacking ambition — we just seem to need more meetings than that.

Consider the Partnership for a Green City, started in August 2004 after Mayor Jerry Abramson signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which seeks to bring signatory cities in compliance with the Kyoto Protocol — generally speaking, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 7 percent under 1990 levels by 2012 — despite the Bush administration’s refusal to sign and implement it. The collective is nearly identical to Lexington’s: Louisville Metro Government, Jefferson County Public Schools and the University of Louisville are working toward ways to reduce their own footprints, through adjustments in lighting and paper usage, for instance.

Jefferson County Public Schools: shifted its entire bus fleet, 1,050 buses, to a two-percent biodiesel blend on Dec. 1. The buses serve 60,000 kids a day, morning and afternoon.

Jefferson County Public Schools: shifted its entire bus fleet, 1,050 buses, to a two-percent biodiesel blend on Dec. 1. The buses serve 60,000 kids a day, morning and afternoon.

Really, though, it’s the automobiles giving us a lot of these problems. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, driving one is the most polluting thing an individual does, and in many urban areas, automobiles are the greatest source of ground-level ozone pollution. The Partnership has recently established a subcommittee dealing exclusively with fleets. While that may ring to some as another half-force focus group like a drip of water to quench a real thirst for action, remember that Louisville has at least made some effort to get its fleet right with the environment. It seems only rational that Metro Government would step up like Lexington’s has, or like some city agencies here already have.

The Metropolitan Sewer District started acquiring environmentally friendly vehicles in the early 1990s, most of which were dedicated compressed natural gas. Currently, 7 percent of its fleet is green: 11 Honda Civics, 11 Ford cargo vans, seven pickup trucks and one single-axle dump truck run on CNG; MSD also owns seven Honda Civic hybrids.

TARC has five hybrid buses now; four more will be added this summer. It’s currently pursuing funding for 15 buses with advanced particulate filtering systems that run on low-sulfur diesel.
On Dec. 1, JCPS switched its entire bus fleet — 1,050 buses — to a two-percent biodiesel blend. To meet new federal regulations, it had already switched to ultra low sulfur diesel fuel for its buses, which serve 60,000 children per day, morning and night.

“The important thing is to start,” said Mike Mulheirn, executive director for JCPS’s Facilities and Transportation. He said the school system would increase the biodiesel blend as it becomes more cost-efficient.
Could the city do more? Yes.

Will it?

Ted Pullen,: Metro Government’s director of public works and assets, gets cozy with a hybrid engine. The city bought more hybrids last year than any previous year.

Ted Pullen,: Metro Government’s director of public works and assets, gets cozy with a hybrid engine. The city bought more hybrids last year than any previous year.

Louisville remains behind cities like Portland, Austin and Seattle, progressive places that take chances on “futuristic” ideas like hybrids, rail lines and expanded public transit, despite the fact that such things pose legitimate financial risks. Plans are on the table to change some of that, at least where the city’s fleet is concerned. In fact, the change is already happening — it’s just been quiet. And slow.

A  bay of vehicles you’d have no trouble recognizing — Ford Crown Victoria police cruisers, Ford Escapes, garbage packers, various kinds of tough-guy trucks and those used to move heavy machinery — sit inertly inside the U of buildings that is Metro Government’s Fleet Services headquarters, a spread that covers nearly a full city block of Logan Street.

The Logan Street Garage is at once showroom and purgatory — vehicles here are either brand new or broken. A clutch of mechanics work inside each of the three major garages, doing all the maintenance and repair save body work and painting, which the city contracts out. The new ones will go out as old ones cash in for good; there is a fairly strict one-to-one policy, which has allowed the city to keep its fleet at a reasonable size over the years, even shrink it post-merger.

At this point in history, there’s not much a city like Louisville can do but have a large fleet of government-owned vehicles to perform every duty from taking an inspector to a job to moving snow off the streets. Since 2003 they’ve supported 52 Metro departments (the fire department, water company and MSD are independent); after the mayor’s recently announced restructuring is finished, they will support 12 super departments.

There are around 4,300 vehicles and pieces of equipment in the Metro fleet, according to Ted Pullen, director of public works and assets. Some 2,600 of those are cars and trucks; the rest are Bobcats, tractors, lawnmowers, Knuckleboom log loaders and pretty much anything else you see with a blue-and-gold fleur-de-lis on the side.

Inside one of the main garages: at the Logan Street complex, a group of police cruisers — marked and unmarked — get facelifts.

Inside one of the main garages: at the Logan Street complex, a group of police cruisers — marked and unmarked — get facelifts.

Both the city and county began experimenting with alt fuels in 1994, according to fleet administrator John Ackerman, a quiet and understated man whose interest in environmentally-sound transportation compelled him to ask me to mention the 64 bicycles Metro maintains (60 are police bikes). He said that, as biodiesel prices drop and supply reaches Louisville — on Dec. 18, Marathon Oil opened the first biodiesel terminal in the city at its Riverport facility — the fuel is becoming “very attractive.” A considerable portion of the fleet can run on biodiesel; it’s just a matter of supply, he explained. Also, they’ve had all of zero problems maintaining vehicles using biodiesel, an initial fear of the conversion that has yet to materialize. In fact, because they burn cleaner fuel, such vehicles actually require less maintenance.

Louisville’s bona fide green fleet is as follows: six vehicles running on compressed natural gas, 22 that can run on CNG or gas (they use gas now, mainly because there’s only one CNG fill station in the city, at MSD’s complex on Algonquin Parkway), eight flex fuel cars that use E85 ethanol blend, and 17 hybrids — that’s one Toyota Prius, two Honda Civics and the rest Ford Escapes, which are replacing some of Metro’s larger chuggers like the Ford Excursion.

Lexington has more than 40 hybrids on hand. Seattle has more than 60. In July 2005, Chicago finished retrofitting 75 of its garbage packers with pollution control devices that significantly reduce their emissions. By late 2006, Indianapolis was retrofitting 84 vehicles — garbage trucks and various non-road vehicles — in much the same way. Detroit is working now to retrofit 40. Last year, New York City began an incentive program to convert its cabs — more than 13,000 licensed by the city — to hybrids like the Prius and Escape.

Louisville’s push to go green largely began anew last year, when Metro bought nine Escape hybrids. As Pullen will tell you, it’s not all about the alt-fuel vehicles that are the face of the “Green Fleet” trend that began in the late ’90s in more progressive American cities: It is a matter of Metro philosophy that when purchasing a vehicle, you buy the smallest, most fuel-efficient one that will do the job.

Pullen said, for instance, that Metro is currently studying the Ford 500 as a possible replacement for some of the gas-guzzling bigger brother Crown Victorias in the police fleet. There are plenty of compact cars: 27 Chevy Cobalts in the fleet, as well as several Ford Focuses.

Metro Government vehicles burned 2.8 million gallons of gasoline last year, which hints at perhaps the most compelling reason for a city government to go green: cost. In 2006, the city paid on average $2.31 per gallon for regular unleaded from Thornton’s, with which the city has a contract for special rates (the average price per gallon in 2006 in Louisville was $2.47). That’s about $6.5 million spent on gas for the year.

Pullen said the payback on hybrids has finally started to balance, which is why Metro invested so heavily in them last year. “There’s that fine line where it’s how much are you willing to pay to make a statement?” he said.

James Hunt, director of physical assets at MSD who serves as co-chair of the Partnership’s fleet subcommittee, said the cost for alt-fuel vehicles, particularly hybrids, has always been an impediment. While MSD used a government grant to offset much of the overhead on its green fleet, Hunt said it’s important to set an environmentally friendly example: Once the Marathon terminal gets rolling, MSD expects to jump on board.

The difference between Louisville and some of the nation’s more progressive cities, it seems, is how much risk the leadership is willing to assume to make a statement: We apparently prefer to wait for the numbers to bear out and leave the experimenting, as it were, to the others. It’s a matter not only of political will but money, and it’s difficult to find fault in those who’ve got to balance a budget. But Louisville is just the right size — in terms of geography, population and the proven willingness of the populace to roll with truly progressive things (The Yarmuth Principle, let’s call it) — for such a “risk,” though it has yet, in these modern times, to stick its neck out on much of the sort.

In the ongoing quest for progressive living, realism must ultimately rule the day, clearly, but never overrun the ideal. And while progressive advocates find it encouraging that Louisville’s moving in the right direction, there’s disappointment over the lead-footed pace.

Melissa Howell of the Kentucky Clean Fuels Coalition said her group is focusing now on getting infrastructure for alt fuels in place. She’s optimistic about turning Louisville a shade or two more green.

“I don’t think we’re where we should be, but I think we are capable of getting there very quickly,” she said in a recent interview. “I think that we have a concerted effort between community leaders that enabled this community to move very quickly into this energy arena.”

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