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More bang, less buck: Jackson to convert public transit shuttles to propane

It’s not quite the Jetsons’ flying car, but Jackson County is moving toward its own fleet of new-age vehicles powered by the emerging alternative fuel propane.


The county’s public transit department is poised to outfit nine of its shuttle busses and vans with propane tanks — and the ability to switch back and forth to gasoline with a simple toggle of a control button near the steering wheel.

“It’s the beauty of both worlds,” said Jackson County Transit Director Chuck Norris. “It’s just a matter of flipping a switch on the dash.”

Being able to fallback on gasoline is handy should the vehicle find itself out of fuel with no propane refueling station at hand.

The county initially tried to get a state clean air grant for the propane conversion of its transit fleet. The grant didn’t come through, and the idea was scrapped — until the county took a second look at the project through a new lens of fiscal scrutiny. And, turns out, it still passed muster.

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First off, propane is cheaper than gasoline. Propane prices have been under $2 per gallon, compared to the cost of gas squarely above $3 a gallon. Plus, the county should be able to get a 50 cent a gallon rebate on propane through a federal incentive program, realizing even more fuel savings, Norris said.

Considering the 20,000 gallons of fuel the county burns through on the nine transit vehicles, propane conversion would save the county about $26,000 per year.

Furthermore, propane pollutes less and is a U.S.-based energy.

“Propane’s a cleaner burning fuel, and plus we’re buying America,” Norris said. “There are a lot of positives.”

Mountain Projects, which runs a public transit service in Haywood County, made the switch to propane in January.

There will be limitations as well. The transit vehicles could only re-fuel their propane tanks at the county yard. Propane system maintenance will also be new territory for county mechanics. And the program comes with upfront costs. 

It will cost about $6,000 to convert each vehicle to propane. That money will be spread out over the course of three years under an agreements with Alliance AutoGas. During the lease period, the price of the equipment will end up offsetting most of the fuel cost savings, but at the end of the three years, the county will become the owner of the equipment and start to realize real savings.

At their last meeting, county commissioners directed the county lawyer to look over a lease agreement with Alliance AutoGas, a company that performs conversion programs for propane. And money has already been set aside in the coming year’s budget.

And while commissioners quizzed Norris on the safety of having propane tanks attached to moving vehicle, he assured them it is safe, even safer than a gas tank. Other state agencies have been using them for some time with no problems. The Raleigh Police Department even went to propane in 2011.

“It’s as safe as anything,” Norris said. “It’s not like what you’d think when you see the movies, and they shoot those big propane tanks and everything explodes.”

County Manager Chuck Wooten doesn’t expect the propane trend to end with transit vehicles. It could also work for the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, the county maintenance department and others that log high miles.

“This is potentially the first of a number of county departments that could come onboard,” Wooten said. “This serves as a test.”

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