They look like regular buses. They run like regular buses. They seat as many people as regular buses.
But they'll never burn a drop of diesel fuel or gasoline.
The four white and blue vehicles sitting at the Mass Transit Administration's Northwest bus maintenance facility run on liquefied natural gas or LNG. When they go into service Wednesday, the MTA will be only the second transit operation in the country to run buses powered by the cleaner-burning alternative fuel.
Under a $3 million program, the MTA will be testing the buses for the next 18 months, inserting them into regularly scheduled routes serving Metro stations and the west and northwest suburbs.
The experiment's goal is to find out if LNG-powered buses can perform as well as their diesel counterparts.
"We're looking for a reliable source of fuel that is available here in North America," said James F. Buckley, the MTA's deputy administrator. "At the same time, we'd have a fuel source that is significantly less pollutant."
The Baltimore area is rated as having some of the worst smog in the country. Liquid natural gas engines run cleaner than diesel or gasoline engines. So far, only the transit system serving Houston has tried using LNG buses.
The buses are manufactured by Flxible Co. Inc. of Delaware, Ohio. They cost the state $250,000 each, about $20,000 more than their diesel counterparts. A sign on the side advertises each bus's environmental benefits and the air conditioner is on top of the bus, instead of on the back. Otherwise, buses 9301, 9302, 9303 and 9304 are identical to the rest of the MTA fleet.
The buses are expected to average 1.7 miles per gallon, giving each a cruising range of about 300 miles on a 180-gallon fill-up of the subzero temperature fuel. That is slightly worse fuel efficiency than a diesel bus, but about the same range.
The MTA has only one fueling station, a $900,000 system installed at the Northwest bus facility. The station keeps a two-week supply of liquid natural gas in a double-hulled trailer that can be picked up and refilled by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.
The liquid natural gas is costing the MTA about the same as diesel fuel (when measured by units of energy). Officials think they could ultimately save money with natural gas if more of the fleet were converted.
Mr. Buckley said he has been assured the fuel offers no safety risk. If a leak were to develop on a bus, methane sensors stationed along the fuel system would notify the driver. The gas would escape harmlessly into the air.
The experiment with LNG buses has been financed by a $2.25 million federal grant, along with $550,000 in state funds and $200,000 from BG&E.;