Every morning a thick, black plume of pollution used to envelop the school bus depot in Arlington. The billowing exhaust from the buses would hang in the air and pose a health risk to the drivers and others who worked nearby.
Since the county switched their buses to run on bio-diesel fuels, comprised of a mix of refined soybean oil and diesel, the air surrounding the bus depot has been devoid of thick soot. Last September the county purchased its first batch of school buses that run on clean, natural gas— a major step toward improving the county’s air quality.
"No one misses the black smoke," said Ric Hiller, head of the county’s vehicle fleet. "We started buying the bio-diesel buses to make sure we are protecting the environment as best as we can."
Arlington’s dedication to promoting the use of clean fuel technology led the National Alternative Fuel Vehicle to host their national kick-off event last Friday outside the county offices, where they showcased the next generation of hybrid and natural-gas powered vehicles.
Arlington was the first locality on the East Coast to use hybrid-electric vehicles in its fleet, and now has nearly 70 such cars and trucks on the road. These vehicles have decreased the county’s gasoline consumption by 15,000 gallons last year, said County Board Vice Chair Paul Ferguson.
More than half of Arlington County’s 1,200 vehicles run on some type of alternative fuel, including bio-diesel, ethanol, compressed natural gas or hybrid-electric technology. Twenty-five of the 32 ART buses are powered by natural gas, and the use of bio-diesel in heavy-duty vehicles has cut the use of gasoline by more than 120,000 gallons a year, Ferguson said.
"It’s important that Arlington lead by example and purchase these hybrid vehicles," Ferguson added. "We are only a small part of the region, so we hope more Arlington residents will make the same choice."
Though gasoline costs have plummeted in recent weeks, hybrid vehicles will save the county a sizable amount of money this year.
"We’re fully committed to hybrids because the cost of gasoline is such an uncertain variable," Ferguson said. "We want to get ahead of the curve."
Though hybrid cars create less pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, they are significantly more expensive. Hiller estimates it costs the county $20,000 per hybrid versus only $13,000 for a gasoline-fueled car.
The county is looking for ways to encourage residents to buy hybrid-electric cars. Ferguson said he would like to offer tax breaks to anyone who purchases an alternative fuel vehicle, and will make it one of his priorities during his chairmanship next year.
While 6 million alternative fuel vehicles are either on the road in America or in production, the NAFV held a nationwide day to highlight new technology and provide greater information to the public.
"We’re trying to promote awareness of these as viable alternatives to pure gasoline vehicles," said Al Ebron, executive director of the National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium, standing in front of hydrogen-fuel cell vehicle.
With more than 1.5 million new cars being added to the roads in China each year — not to mention the hundreds of thousands of new vehicles purchased in India and other emerging markets — the world’s thirst for oil will only grow, Ebron said.
The widespread use of hybrid, ethanol-flex and hydrogen-fuel cell vehicles needs to be the centerpiece of the country’s overall strategy to wean itself off its addiction to oil, Ebron said.
"Until customers start accepting and buying these vehicles, we are never going to end our dependence on foreign oil," Ebron added.
Arlington County is attempting to make it easier for people to function without owning a car. The county’s land-use policy has been geared toward creating "walkable, mixed-use" centers surrounding Metro stations, Ferguson said.
The county is also promoting car-sharing programs like ZipCar and FlexCar as good alternatives to owning a vehicle. Both companies have reserved spots for their cars on county streets, and are looking to expand their businesses.
Both companies charge residents per hour for renting their cars and trucks, and provide insurance and free gasoline.
"The concept is a win-win," said Ryan Robertson, business development specialist for Flexcar. "It takes traffic off the road and offers a car to residents who don’t have one."
The county’s ultimate goal is to have a fleet entirely comprised of cars, trucks and buses that function without gasoline, officials said.
But there is even more it can do to save money and help improve the region’s air quality. Treasurer Frank O’Leary suggests that Arlington replace meter readers’ cars with Segway scooters.
"This is a low-cost method of getting around and will make them much faster" in completing their job, O’Leary added.