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EDITORIAL: Public needs to push for hybrid buses

By Staff | Nov 23, 2010

Since the launch of the Alternative Transportation in Parks and Public Lands (ATPPL) Program, a partnership study between the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, the City of Sanibel and Lee County Transit (LeeTran) more than two years ago, researchers are aiming at finding a solution to managing visitation to the refuge while still maintaining focus on the primary purpose of the sanctuary itself: allowing wildlife a safe and protected habitat that will remain largely unspoiled.

As one of the most visited refuges in the country, the “Ding” Darling NWR experiences high traffic volumes, especially during peak seasonal periods (January through March). The study is designed to explore “appropriate and environmentally sensitive solutions” for managing the volume of visitors and their transportation needs.

Since 2008, when Phase I of the ATPPL kicked off, the three partners in the program held several public meetings on the issue, inviting citizens of Sanibel to share their input on the program and assist the research team with developing potential solutions that will steer LeeTran in the direction islanders most preferred.

Among the ideas introduced at those meetings included conventional buses, water taxis, tram vehicles (such as the ones already in service at the refuge) and state-of-the-art “green” vehicles, including hybrid transit buses.

Over the course of several gatherings and meetings with City Council, the public spoke out both for and against these alternatives. First and foremost, a large majority of attendees rejected the suggestion of any conventional LeeTran buses coming to Sanibel. There were also concerns about ecological impacts of adding a water taxi service to and from the island, and how visitors — once here — would travel from point-to-point.

It did seem, however, that many people were intrigued by the suggestion of hybrid transit buses being used to bring visitors from the mainland to Sanibel.

But according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, which provides consumer and technological information along with a comprehensive ranking of hybrid vehicles available in the United States, not all hybrid transit buses emit less particulate emissions than their conventional combustion engine counterparts.

Only those hybrid buses equipped with diesel particulate filters saw a reduction in particulate emissions — by more than 85 percent.

In addition, studies have shown lower emissions of nitrogen oxide and other smog-forming emissions from hybrid buses than conventional diesel buses. An improvement in fuel economy has also been suggestion, but thus far studies have been inconclusive.

Given all of the information currently available, we would support the addition of hybrid transit buses to transport visitors to and from the refuge in as “green” a manner as possible. Neither the refuge trams nor conventional LeeTran vehicle would be suitable for Sanibel, given our devotion to protecting this sanctuary island.

Visitors will come to the refuge, for sure. But they should arrive on our terms, not just by what the folks at LeeTran may suggest.

Last week, the ATPPL program officially entered Phase II of the study. And researchers are again asking for input from the public. Although they have yet to announce a schedule of upcoming gatherings, they invite comment via the project website at www.dingdarlingtransportation.com.

This second phase consists of a detailed analysis of the alternatives that the public helped generate in Phase I. A locally preferred alternative — including the transportation type(s), the area to be served and the season/days/hours of operation — will be presented to the public early next year.

We would like to know your opinions, too, and invite discussion and debate via this newspaper. We will forward your thoughts on to the research team, and participate in every progress report between now and the conclusion of the study. Remember, we are on your side — this is our island.

We urge the community to look at all of the alternatives and draw their own conclusions. Again, we are confident that the hybrid transit bus option is the best one out there.

— Reporter editorial