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Covington warms on natural gas vehicles
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In the wake of ever-increasing diesel and gasoline prices, Covington officials continue to warm to the idea of building a compressed natural gas fueling facility that would be available to the city and public.

The council reached an informal consensus Wednesday night to move ahead with an engineering study for a compressed natural gas (CNG) facility; an official vote is expected to be taken at Monday's council meeting. A ballpark figure for the cost of the study was not available, though grant writer Randy Conner said he could have it before Monday's meeting.

Once the study is completed, the city would decide whether to spend approximately $1.9 million to build a CNG fueling facility.

Conner and Bill Meecham, director of the city's public services division, met with Snapping Shoals EMC fleet employees because Snapping Shoals has a private fueling station at its Brown Bridge Road location and 25 CNG-powered trucks. The Snapping Shoals EMC fleet is also planning to convert an additional 25 trucks to run on CNG.

Conner said he was told it costs Snapping Shoals $8,100 to convert a truck to run on CNG and they recoup those conversion costs by saving on fuel, passing the break even point at 60,000 miles. Fleet Services Director Jeff Morgan previously told The News that Snapping Shoals saved around $280,000 by using CNG vehicles between 1999 and 2007, based on his calculations.

Conner said the conversion costs for the city should be similar and can be handled in house, assuming a mechanic receives training. In addition, Conner said the city should be able to buy its CNG for an even cheaper price, allowing it to recover costs after 45,000 to 50,000 miles.

Councilman Keith Dalton said he thought this was a great opportunity not only for Covington, but also for the Newton County School System if it eventually chose to convert some of its school buses to run on CNG. Conner said a standard school bus model has not yet been created to run on CNG. The issue is that the CNG tanks take a lot of space to store.

Conner said he also spoke to Sheriff Ezell Brown about the possibility of converting vehicles to CNG. Acceleration and performance of CNG engines did not previously match gasoline engines performance, but Conner said recent advancements in technology have equalized the playing field.
Another hope is that a CNG fueling facility would create a revenue stream for the city because it could sell CNG to other agencies and the public.

Mayor Ronnie Johnston asked if there was a way for the city to claim and protect its immediate territory, similar to a franchise. City Manager Steve Horton said that idea could be accomplished by the city simply refusing to sell CNG to a company that wanted to open up a private fueling station. When asked if the city would have to sell CNG to someone who wanted to compete, City Attorney Ed Crudup said no.

The hope would be for the city to become part of a CNG fueling network that would attract area drivers, as well as tractor trailer trucks driving on the Interstate 20 corridor.

Horton said the city could even potentially create a rebate program for people who choose to buy their own slowfill, home CNG machine. Because the customer would still be buying CNG from the city, the city would still reap some profit.

City rejects pedestrian bridge
In other city news, the council reached a consensus to not spend money to build a pedestrian bridge directly across Ga. Highway 81 that would cross Interstate 20.

While the city already has a $500,000 grant for the bridge and could receive other funding, it could still end up paying at least $200,000 if it didn't find any additional funding for the $1 million bridge.
In addition, the city would have to pay $75,000 for an engineering study, which council members didn't seem keen on.

Councilmen Chris Smith, Mike Whatley and Dalton have all said they've received calls from constituents questioning whether the money wouldn't be spent somewhere else. Mayor Johnston agreed that he believes $200,000 would be better spent somewhere else at this time.

The idea of the bridge was to make a safer pedestrian crossing for walkers and bicyclists, as the current railing isn't particularly high.

If the city of Oxford or Oxford College were willing to contribute money to the project to cover costs, the city council would likely consider the project.

Councilwoman Ocie Franklin did say the city should work closely with the school, because it's an important part of the community. One argument for the bridge is that many Oxford College students don't have cars and would prefer to be able to walk to shopping and restaurants in Covington. However, the college does have a shuttle.

Councilman Smith wondered if the state would be willing to maybe put fencing up on the bridge railing to make it even safer.