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Incentives could accelerate alternative fuel for Pasco vehicles

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NEW PORT RICHEY — Local efforts have stalled since late 2011 to convert or buy many fleet vehicles, garbage trucks and school buses that can use alternative fuels. With new, tax exemptions and other incentives, however, compressed natural gas could gather steam.

State Sen. Wilton Simpson last week led a summit of county, school district and other community leaders about a CNG progress report. Commissioner Henry Wilson, Superintendent of Schools Kurt Browning, Assistant Superintendent for Administration and Operations Ray Gadd and others were among those who attended.

Simpson, R-Trilby, guided legislation this spring that would suspend taxes on CNG fuel for the next five years. Lawmakers approved the bill.

A full tank of CNG would cost at least $1.50 less per gallon than other fuels, experts calculate.

“We are looking at having a basic feasibility study done by the end of October,” Wilson said about CNG stations and vehicles.

The study would estimate how many CNG fueling stations county government and the school district might need, Wilson said. The study would include recommendations for possible locations for stations.

The stations could offer fast-fill CNG pumps, which take about the same time as filling a car’s tank with gasoline, Wilson has said. The option remains for additional, slow-fill CNG pumps that take overnight to refill a tank, roughly eight hours.

The county and school district staffs would compile a list of how many CNG vehicles might be purchased in the near future. It’s more practical to buy new buses or trucks already equipped for CNG fuel, Wilson said in April.

“Senator Simpson and myself are looking at this as an opportunity to bring manufacturing jobs here to Pasco with the reduction of cost and increased benefits to the business owner,” Wilson also wrote in an email reply to inquiries.

“We are trying to find ways to minimize taxpayer risk, by bringing in private dollars to pay for the station and with the recent legislation this might be a little easier,” Wilson observed.

At present the area’s lone CNG fueling station is in Clearwater, according to Rachel Perrin Rogers, Simpson’s chief legislative aide. The Florida Department of Agriculture has almost completed rules to implement the incentives in Simpson’s bill, Rogers noted.

“Based on current projections they will begin taking applications for the incentive money for converted or natural gas vehicles right after the first of the year,” Rogers wrote in an email reply to inquiries.

“We’re committed to the concept,” Gadd said Friday, adding progress probably will come in “small steps at first.”

State incentives could offset the extra cost of buying a new school bus already outfitted for CNG fuel, Gadd said. The Pasco school district also is considering buses powered by propane.

Since September 2011, a dream of Pasco County officials had seemed to run out of gas to convert fleets to alternative fuels.

The concept of a central CNG refueling station to serve Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties was discussed during a summit of area officials in December 2011. The idea pretty much sat on a shelf since then.

An age-old conundrum confronted Pasco officials — which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

On one hand, CNG fuel can slash costs compared to filling up with gasoline, cut pollution and dramatically reduce engine wear and tear.

On the other hand, the retrofit of existing trucks can get expensive. CNG fueling stations are few and far in between.

Pasco Commissioner Henry Wilson and Pasco Republican State Committeeman Bill Bunting continue to wave the CNG banner. In April Bunting publicly praised Simpson for promoting the use of natural to boost “energy independence.”

“The school system in Leon County had has its buses retrofitted to use natural gas several years ago,” Bunting wrote. “The buses will now get twice the engine life and reduce the cost of fuel by about 50 percent.”

Trash haulers, utilities and long-distance haulers in the state also have converted fleets, Bunting emphasized.

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