'Breathe' Group Tackles Pittsburgh's Air Quality

Natural gas bus fleet among initiatives by corporate and foundation partners

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
27 October 2011
By Jon Schmitz

Port Authority CEO Steve Bland said he is often asked whether the agency could switch to buses powered by natural gas instead of diesel fuel.

"Here's why it's not a no-brainer: the upfront cost," he said. "What we've said is we have no idea what that cost is."

He's about to find out. As part of a major regional campaign to improve air quality, The Heinz Endowments and EQT will fund a $287,000 study of the feasibility of converting the bus fleet to natural gas.

That and several other initiatives will be announced today as part of the formal launch of the Breathe Project, a collective of nonprofit, business, government and other organizations devoted to repeating the historic late-1940s collaboration that scrubbed the thick smoke from Pittsburgh's skyline.

Nearly 40 members have signed on, including U.S. Steel, PNC, the United Steelworkers, Allegheny County Health Department, the Hillman Foundation, the Group Against Smog and Pollution and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

The project aims to raise awareness that while the region's air is far cleaner than in the past, it still ranks with the worst in the nation, said Robert Vagt, president of The Heinz Endowments.

In addition to focusing on major pollution sources such as coal-fired power plants and other industry, the campaign hopes to inspire individual residents to join and take steps to improve air quality, like planting trees, using mass transit or riding bikes.

It began a multimedia advertising campaign Sept. 18 and has launched a website, http://www.breatheproject.org.

"We expect both the numbers of organizations and individuals joining the coalition (at the website) to increase significantly as word spreads," said Mr. Vagt, whose organization has been involved in air-quality research for several years.

In March, a study funded by The Heinz Endowments concluded that the region's air quality remained "unacceptably poor" and a threat to people's health. It also found that most of the pollution is generated here, not blown in from afar.

"The good news is that we can do something locally about our air quality problem," Mr. Vagt said.

Polling and focus groups found a contradiction, he said. People said the region's air quality was far better than in the past, but when told it was still comparatively poor, they responded with examples of relatives', friends' or even their own health problems that might have been caused by pollution.

The coalition will hold a public meeting soon to set goals, develop an implementation strategy and determine ways to measure improvements. The campaign is likely to stretch over several years, Mr. Vagt said.

The Heinz Endowments, having determined that not enough progress has been made, is putting up $6 million for several initiatives that will be announced at a 1 p.m. kickoff event today at the Children's Museum on the North Side.

In addition to the study of converting buses to natural gas, for example, the organization will provide $120,000 to Carnegie Mellon University's Traffic 21 initiative to develop a signal system for East Liberty that adapts to changes in traffic flow.

Lessons learned from the study would then be applied to ease congestion and improve flow in Oakland and Downtown, said Caren Glotfelty, director of the endowments' environmental program.

Mr. Bland said he frequently receives inquiries about changing buses to natural gas -- some inspired by the state's burgeoning drilling industry.

He noted there are significant financial obstacles. Buses that run on natural gas cost $60,000 to $75,000 more than diesel-powered coaches. Adding natural gas fueling stations and other needed infrastructure for the conversion would cost tens of millions of dollars.

Buses would be replaced rather than retrofitted, and based on the authority's purchasing cycle for buses, converting the whole fleet of 700 buses might take up to 16 years, he said.

Because of the authority's financial troubles -- a projected $64 million operating deficit for 2012-13 -- the only way a conversion could happen is if a private entity was willing to pay the upfront costs in exchange for a percentage of whatever the authority saved in fuel costs, Mr. Bland said. At present, diesel costs about $1 per mile traveled while natural gas ranges from 60 to 75 cents per mile, he said.

"I'm very eager to do it," he said of the study. "I think it will answer a lot of the questions people have had."

County Executive Dan Onorato also is pleased that the issue is being studied. "I really think that this is the future and we can take advantage of the abundance of natural gas in Pennsylvania and clean the air at the same time," he said.

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog,

The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic.