The Fort Smith Board of Directors approved $744,267 for the purchase of 12 new fleet trucks and vehicles for the city’s engineering and street departments Tuesday night (Oct. 18), but it wasn’t without scrutiny from city directors pushing for the long-awaited conversion to compressed natural gas (CNG).
Fort Smith Purchasing Manager Alie Bahsoon faced questioning from City Directors George Catsavis, Kevin Settle, and Mike Lorenz as to why the purchasing request for the new vehicles failed to include a CNG cost comparison since it has been a years-long goal of the Board’s to convert fleet trucks to the cheaper fuel source.
Bahsoon said a detailed comparison between the two fuel sources was not provided because the cost of CNG conversion kits still runs the same as when the city last looked at converting (between $9,000 to $12,000 per kit). According to Greg Riley, the city’s director of streets and traffic control, kit costs were “more than fuel would cost for the life of the vehicles.”
Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman, sitting in for the absent City Administrator Carl Geffken on Tuesday, noted that Fort Smith no longer has access to the rebate program that was offered by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC) in December 2011 when the city first began flirting with CNG conversion.
The city conducted a pilot program in 2013 across various city departments, including fire, customer service, police, and transit. Reviews at the time were said to be “mixed” with a fire department vehicle showing a $5,250 conversion and an expected break-even from savings after 33 months of use. Police, on the other hand, reported CNG patrol units were not as reliable as gasoline-powered cruisers.
“But technology’s changing all the time,” said Director Settle on Tuesday. “We should be looking on a yearly basis at how much the conversion kits cost, what’s the price of gas today and what the future will look like. CNG is down to less than a dollar a gallon and the price of gas is $2, $2.20. Plus CNG price changes twice a year and gas depends on the day. I would ask as we move forward, ‘how do we look at this more on a regular basis and at what point do we start working it in?’ Other cities are already working it, and they’re using bigger buses and bigger cars. AOG is using CNG. So there’s a point where the cost becomes worth it because gas is going to fluctuate much worse.”
Director Lorenz agreed with Settle’s assessment, pointing out that earlier in the day he’d even “seen a company today mowing grass using a CNG mower.”
He continued: “I see private companies moving to CNG in a lot of areas, and I would feel more comfortable if I saw, ‘Okay, here are the visuals, here is the cost analysis, this is what it would cost, this is why we’re doing it,’ rather than, ‘we didn’t really look at it.’ I don’t have a good comparison here that says, ‘Here’s the data,’ and I can’t understand why so many other people do it and get the return on investment, but not here.”
Actual cost savings will fluctuate depending on fuel costs, miles of use in a year per vehicle, miles per gallon, and the price of conversion kits. Experimenting with the numbers, a fleet truck that costs $12,000 to convert and travels 10,000 miles in a year at 15 miles per gallon with a $2 per gallon CNG cost savings would take nine years to reach break-even. A $9,000 conversion cost under that same 10,000 miles of use and $2 savings would amount to 6.75 years. Double the use (miles per year), and the trucks would pay for themselves in half the aforementioned periods of time, or 4.5 years on the high end and roughly 3.4 years on the low. The aforementioned savings do not include lowered maintenance costs often attributed to CNG vehicles.
Ultimately, the Board approved the request 6-1 with Director Tracy Pennartz dissenting.