ATLANTIC CITY — Atlantic City jitneys are going green, both in gas consumption and design.

Officials with the city’s Jitney Association are in the process of converting their

190-vehicle fleet, now more than 13 years old, to new shuttle buses that operate on compressed natural gas.

“The whole idea behind this is we’re going to reduce dependency on foreign oil and save us some money in the process,” said association President Tom Woodruff, who has been working on the conversion for about two years.

Various jitney drivers will drive the prototype during the next two months.

Barring any major problems, the association, which is composed of individual jitney owners, expects to see its first 40 new jitneys roaming the city’s streets July 1 and the remaining 150 vehicles operational by September or October.

Jitney owner John Lanfranchi test-drove the new vehicle Tuesday and was glowing after his spin.

“It definitely exceeded my expectations,” he said. “The way the bus handles, it was pretty much you couldn’t notice any difference at all. This is probably one of the most exciting things that I’ve ever been involved in.”

Compressed natural gas is a fossil fuel substitute for gasoline and diesel that is considered cleaner and cheaper than the current options used by most automobiles. Woodruff expects drivers to save at least 50 cents per gallon on gasoline, along with continued savings through less frequent oil changes and fewer replacements of gas injectors.

The fleet’s overhaul combined the efforts of the association with Clean Energy Fuels Corp., which builds and runs compressed natural gas fueling stations and is financially backed by Dallas billionaire T. Boone Pickens.

“They are part of a big scope of work to lower emissions and encourage alternative energy,” said Barbara Johnson, an assistant vice president of the corporation’s grant, risk management and human resources departments.

The association received its first prototype Tuesday. The new vehicle swaps its current aqua-colored exterior for a green-and-white design tagged with the familiar orange sun logo on its side.

“The actual colors, the thought process was we’re going green and we expect to have an entire green footprint,” Woodruff said.

The association is looking to relocate from its current station in the city’s Inlet section to build a new station with natural gas fueling pumps. But the green initiatives would only start there. Woodruff said the association also hopes the station will have operations that recycle rainwater for vehicle washing and runs its electricity on solar power.

But as the association works to establish a new home, with the old Ruffu Ford lot on Albany Avenue as one potential location, drivers of the new jitneys can only fuel up in one location.

The Atlantic County Utilities Authority will break ground on a new compressed natural gas facility next week to accommodate 15 new CNG trash trucks that will be added to its fleet. The city jitneys will share that site until it establishes its own. The ACUA facility is expected to be fully operational by July 1. Johnson said Clean Energy Fuels provides the capital to build all of the stations and hopes the established infrastructure will motivate smaller fleets to personally invest in compressed natural gas vehicles.

However, Lanfranchi said the limited fueling locations could be the lone downside to the fleet conversion.

Each new jitney costs $56,917. Individual owners must invest 55 percent of those costs, or about $31,000. The federal government will cover the rest of the costs through $300 million in national stimulus funding. And it will be up to the individual owners to decide what to do with their old jitneys.

Lanfranchi said several drivers were skeptical at first, but after researching the vehicles and the potential for future savings, most were sold on the idea and voted overwhelmingly to move forward with the project.

The association’s fleet conversion is part of a heightened awareness of alternative energy in Atlantic City. Several other projects are being planned or are already being implemented, including converting the city’s Public Works building to solar power and plans to rezone Duck Island as an alternative energy zone. Many of these initiatives spawned from Mayor Lorenzo Langford’s Alternative Energy Task Force, a group composed of city officials, representatives of The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and others.

“This is absolutely an exciting time,” said City Solicitor G. Bruce Ward, who is currently leading the task force. “We believe the city is moving in the right direction, especially when we see the morning news about gallons of oil being dumped into the ocean and threatening the coastline.”

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