The city of Santa Clarita approved this week an approximately $14 million contract with Trillium for the design and construction of a hydrogen-fueling facility for its transit fleet.
The unanimous vote came with an interesting admission from the city manager, who echoed the sentiment of a council gadfly, sharing in his frustration at the state-mandated, federally funded expenditure.
The city’s agenda item for the contract explained the need for the facility as part of a December 2018 order from the California Air Resources Board, which requires all public transit agencies to have a 100% zero-emissions fleet by 2040.
After Adrian Aguilar, the city’s transportation manager, presented the agenda item to the City Council, resident Steve Petzold, a local Realtor and regular fixture at municipal meetings, asked the dais in a frustrated tone if the city would just recognize this wasn’t something they wanted to do.
“I would at least ask for an acknowledgement that this is an unfunded mandate,” Petzold said, calling the entire program a “big scam” because “it is not economically viable to produce hydrogen.”
While the city has invested millions of dollars in its fleet of compressed natural gas-powered buses in just the last 10 years alone based on fleet costs, as City Manager Ken Striplin pointed out to the City Council on Tuesday, the hydrogen station “is an absolute requirement.”
“He’s right. We had a significant investment in CNG. CNG no longer qualifies,” Striplin explained to the audience Tuesday in response to Petzold’s comments, also noting the city would not be retiring any of those vehicles until they were no longer usable. “We are still purchasing some CNG until we’re forced to move to 100% of zero emissions, because it is more of a cost benefit to the city.”
To Petzold’s statement the project is an unfunded mandate, he disputed the veracity because while the program is a mandate, it’s not being funded locally, the dollars come from the federal government, which funds the lion’s share of transportation costs, he said. There are strings attached to those funds determined by agencies like CARB, Striplin said.
The reality is, Striplin said, if the city wants federal funding for its transportation programs, it needs to abide by state and federal laws.
“As it relates to Mr. Petzold’s comments, I can’t say that I totally disagree with him, because the answer is, if we were doing a complete cost-benefit analysis, would we come to the same conclusion? Absolutely not. But it’s not an option,” he said, sharing the stark reality facing the council on the mandates. “It’s not an option at the Air Resources Board. It’s not an option as it relates to federal funding, which is the vast majority of how transit is funded. This is an absolute requirement. We have to do it.”
The city did not have information immediately available Friday to address a concern Petzold mentioned regarding the cost of producing the electricity needed, but Aguilar acknowledged Friday in a phone call that the cost was something that was looked at by the city.
The city considered two approaches when looking at its hydrogen-based transportation infrastructure, according to city documents: The first was a hydrogen-delivery system, which was several million dollars less.
The city went with Trillium’s patented hydrogen-production model because, while more expensive as an initial investment, it was seen as significantly less expensive in the long term and one that did not leave the city as subject to spikes in the cost of hydrogen. The difference in the cost of producing versus a purchase-and-delivery option is expected to be recouped by the city in approximately 7.5 years, according to the city’s agenda.