Lodi Unified School District Superintendent Bill Huyett distinctly remembers his first day on the job in 2000. He was trying to find the best route to the district offices and ended up behind a yellow school bus on Industrial Way.
"I saw so much black I could not see the bus," he said of the emissions escaping from the diesel-fueled bus.
He told the story Wednesday as the district, along with the city, celebrated their nearly $900,000 joint venture to build a compressed natural gas fueling station at the LUSD Transportation Facility. It was six years in the making.
Although the station has been in use since the beginning of July, city and district staff cut a ribbon and ceremonially filled a bus with the environmentally friendly fuel that cuts down emissions, making for a safer ride for children.
The new station has two components, 15 slow fill pumps and one quick fill pump.
Of the district's fleet of 103 buses, 16 are running on CNG, a pressurized natural gas comprised mostly of methane with vapors lighter than air. Those buses were purchased in 2002 as part of a more than $2.5 million project.
Until the project was complete, bus drivers used slower filling stations in Stockton and at private local stations. They switched to the city's fueling station at the Municipal Services Center when it opened in May.
The slower fill CNG stations took 30 to 45 minutes for one bus.
"(For the CNG buses) that's 450 to 500 minutes wasted on people waiting around for the gas to get into the tanks," said Doug Barge, LUSD's chief business officer.
The quick fill station is primarily used when buses have longer routes or field trips that require them to top off during the day, Barge said. Usually, a single tank can fuel a bus on a normal route.
The quick fill station delivers 4,500 pounds of pressure and can fill a bus in five minutes. The slower filling CNG pumps can take up to four hours.
The station will also be used for quick fueling of city vehicles. The city's transportation fleet of 20 buses, two dump trucks and a street sweeper use CNG.
The LUSD station will serve as a back-up facility for the city if the station at the Municipal Services Center on Ham Lane is down for repairs, said Tiffani Fink, transportation manager for Lodi Public Works Department.
Karen Colson, a district school bus driver, said having to refuel the CNG buses at other locations was a pain, so the on-site fueling station is a welcomed addition.
"It's saving us time and fuel because we would have to drive back from (other fueling locations)," she said.
School District Transportation Director Terry Fuglsang estimated that the new station would reduce costs by 10 percent in switching from higher-priced diesel to CNG.
Lodi Mayor Larry Hansen presented a certificate of recognition to the district.
"This is a wave of the future. We like setting the standard and being an example," he said.
School bus driver Karen Colson fills bus No. 19 with natural gas following a ribbon-cutting ceremony dedicating the fueling units at the Lodi Unified School District's transportation yard Wednesday. (Casey Freeman/News-Sentinel)
The only cities in the Central Valley with more CNG vehicles are Fresno and Bakersfield, according to Anthony Presto, the northern region representative for the San Joaquin Valley Air Control District.
He reminded the audience that the valley is in violation of the Environmental Protection Agency's air quality regulations, making it one of the worst air quality regions in the nation, second only to the Los Angeles area.
Diesel is a source of both ozone and particulate matter. CNG reduces exposure to particulate matter by 95 percent and significantly lessens smog formed from emissions, Presto said.
"It's good for the kids, it's good from the school district, and it's good for the air," Huyett said.
Public Works Director Richard Prima said the city faced stiff competition from other cities in the San Joaquin County Council of Government who were vying for Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality federal grants.
LUSD received a total of $1.6 million in federal funds allocated by the council of governments to lessen air pollution by constructing the station and replacing buses.Now the district is looking to replace 35 or more of its oldest diesel-fueled busses in the next three to five years. The city is also facing compliance with federal clean air standards by 2010.
New CNG-fueled buses cost upward of $35,000 more than diesel ones, funds the district can't provide, Fuglsang said, although he hopes federal and state money will be available to pay those costs in the future.