The Town Council last week voted 6-4 in favor of a special appropriation to purchase a hybrid diesel/electric school bus for New Canaan Schools. However, the motion could not pass since the Town Charter requires seven affirmative votes.

Both the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Finance have unanimously approved the $145,931 appropriation.

Roy Walder, the district's transportation coordinator, is heading the initiative.

If approved, the town would be responsible for paying the cost of a standard diesel bus, which makes up about $85,000 of the $145,931, while a state grant would pay for the hybrid engine, which costs $63,584. The bus would serve as a replacement, meaning a current bus would be cycled out of usage. The remainder of the cost for the bus would be recovered by the town after they lease it to DATTCO Inc., the current school bus provider for New Canaan, for a period of two years. After those two years, the town would sell the bus to DATTCO for a nominal fee.

DATTCO would also be responsible for all maintenance and insurance costs of the vehicle, making this a cost-neutral initiative.

"Basically it operates much like a Prius model car does these days," Walder said. "The charging of the battery comes from stepping on the brakes, in essence, and that's what recharges the battery. So there is a diesel engine there (that kicks in) when you go at speeds at about 45 mph or above. But the buses used in town probably won't (reach that) pretty often."

More Information

Fact box

"I'm estimating that we may be able to save at least about 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel per year," Walder said. "Obviously that depends on what routes we put it on, how much time it's in service, since there are so many variables involved. What I did was, I kind of looked at how much fuel does an average bus use of the 35 buses we have in town, and based on that, my assumption is we'll save at least half the fuel, maybe more. But it ought to be at least half because it's supposed to be a very efficient (vehicle) run primarily on electric (energy)."

Walder said if he assumed gas was $3 a gallon, the savings would be at least $3,000 a year.

However, even though it is described as being cost neutral, the project requires a special appropriation to invest in it until all the necessary bodies, including the state and DATTCO, pay New Canaan back. Considering the recent issues in the global economy spurred by the recent debt limit issues in Washington, Town Council member Paul Foley thought it was not fiscally responsible to do it at this time. He also felt the hybrid technology may not be as reliable as expected, based on his conversations with Bill Oestmann, highway superintendant for Public Works.

"Wouldn't we want to test drive this thing a few times before we bought it?" Foley asked. "The technology doesn't work on the hills here in Connecticut. They don't work in New England. They might work fine in Florida, but when you get the winters, the hills and the wear and tear of that, (Oestmann) is not convinced that it will work. You're taking a 300-horsepower engine, taking it out of a bus, putting a 200-horsepower engine in and substituting with 100 horsepower of electric, if you will. That differential does not get made up when you're stepping on the gas. So the power isn't there. Also, taking $63,000 of taxpayer's money, which is our money, to save $3,000 a year is just a dumb equation."

As far as maintenance risks goes, Walder said there was not much risk in trying it out since the onus would essentially be on DATTCO. He said in the event of technical problems they would have to fix it or replace the bus if they cannot.

Other council members shared in Foley's skepticism about the request, but more so with the contract with DATTCO. Members Tom O' Dea, Steve Karl and Mark DeWaele openly mused about perhaps requesting more from DATTCO in the contract. Members struggled with the two-year lease, followed by DATTCO receiving the bus at a nominal fee. Many felt the bus should be sold back at a higher price so that the town would be able to make some money off the project while still providing a good deal to DATTCO.

At the end of the meeting, the motion was put on the table with wording that protected the town from not receiving payment for the initial investment of $145,931.

The motion had more positives in a 6-4 vote with John Emert, Christine Hussey, Foley and DeWaele voting against the measure. The subject will be reconsidered at a future meeting.