Metro board members voted yesterday to purchase more than 200 diesel and hybrid buses, scrapping a policy of buying natural gas buses to improve the region's air quality.
After an hour of sharp debate, members of the board's Planning and Development Committee voted to buy 117 diesel buses and 100 hybrids over the next three years. The measure awaits final approval April 21 at the monthly meeting of the full board, which includes the same voting members as the committee.
Metro owns 1,450 buses, all of which run on diesel except for the 164 natural gas models already on the street.
Debate on the bus program has focused on two issues: air quality and money.
Diesel exhaust contains nitrogen oxides and organic compounds that create ground-level ozone, a major component of smog. Diesel smoke also contains toxic compounds and fine particles that have been linked to several health problems.
Engines that burn compressed natural gas emit almost no toxic chemicals and lower levels of nitrogen oxides, though they do produce higher levels of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.
Supporters of the diesel buses said newer models are cleaner and that hybrids represent the future in reducing pollution. The buses also could be delivered sooner, which they said would help air quality by getting older diesels off the streets.
Compressed natural gas "is the best, hybrid is next and diesel is third," said Dan Tangherlini, the District's transportation director and an alternate member of the board, who supported yesterday's plan. "But you stack it up against the 15-year-old buses we're replacing, and it's not a contest. We're fighting over the marginal difference."
The plan's opponents said that natural gas remains the surest way to reduce the region's air pollution and that hybrid technology, while promising, was untested.
As for money, the low-end figure for the purchase of 117 diesel buses and 100 hybrids is $90 million. That figure assumes that each hybrid could be purchased for $510,000, but Metro officials said that amount would be valid only for 22 buses involved in a limited deal with a bus service in Washington state. They have said that estimates for hybrids could be as high as $600,000 each. If that were the cost for the remaining 78 hybrids, the diesel option would run about $97.5 million.
Buying 217 natural gas buses would cost $80.3 million, leaving $10 million to $17 million to retrofit a facility in Montgomery County to service natural gas buses. Metro officials estimated that it would cost $15 million to $20 million to upgrade the facility, based on costs of similar projects. Others suggested the retrofitting could be done for about $10 million because the facility is relatively new and should be easy to convert.
The bus debate began last year when Maryland's representatives on the board made clear that they would not support the purchase of more natural gas buses.
The Metro board consists of six voting members -- two each from the District, Virginia and Maryland. Under Metro's governing rules, one jurisdiction can veto a proposal if both its members agree.
Jim Graham, who represents the District on the board, said the city's representatives may unite to block the diesel bus purchase at the April 21 board meeting.
"This is a real conflict between us," Graham said. "There could very well be a jurisdictional veto."
Graham, a Democratic member of the D.C. Council representing Ward 1, noted during yesterday's meeting that the council has passed a law instructing Metro not to buy diesel or hybrid buses. That drew laughs from several other board members because the law includes a caveat allowing the District to buy diesels for its new downtown line. Graham also called on Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) to instruct his board appointee, Gladys Mack, to vote against the plan.
Mack voted for the diesels last year but abstained from voting yesterday. After the meeting she said she would "look at the issues that have been raised."
Williams's spokesman, Vincent Morris, said the mayor "would not try to force anyone to vote a certain way."