Stop and smell the exhaust as MTA buses go for a cleaner burn


February 14, 1994

Next time you're stuck driving behind a bus in Baltimore, sit back and take a whiff of those exhaust fumes.

Admittedly, the smell is not exactly like a dozen roses. But if you sniff carefully, you may notice a distinct difference from the usual diesel plume.

Since Feb. 5, about one third of the Mass Transit Administration fleet has been running on a synthetic fuel that substantially lowers the amount of hydrocarbons, particulates and other pollutants in bus exhaust.

You may not care beans about bus fuel, but the farmers who care for beans are plenty interested.

That's because the new fuel is made from soybeans. It's soybean oil that has been thinned by an industrial process that extracts glycerin.

The product is used to make soap, detergent, dietary fat substitute, shampoo and hand creams. When marketed as a fuel, it's called "biodiesel."

MTA buses are running on a blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent regular diesel. Already, that seems to have lessened the pollution -- and the fragrance -- coming out of their tailpipes without affecting performance.

"It has something of a vegetable oil smell to it," said James F. Buckley, the MTA's deputy administrator. "It seems to burn cleaner."

The MTA has purchased 38,000 gallons of biodiesel, about a five-week supply for the 250 buses at Bush Division in Southwest Baltimore. The agency bought it for the same price as wholesale diesel -- about 60 cents a gallon.

That's an artificially low price. The market value for biodiesel is between $2.40 and $2.80 a gallon, but the MTA's purchase was lTC subsidized by the National SoyDiesel Development Board, an organization financed by 400,000 soybean farmers nationwide.

Kenlon Johannes, a spokesman for the board, said the MTA is one of the largest of several dozen transit agencies participating in a road test of the fuel. Initial results, he said, have been encouraging.

"The engine really doesn't know the difference," Mr. Johannes said. "It's biodegradeable and nontoxic. We can mail it by UPS."

Soybean farmers are hoping that biodiesel will find a niche as an alternative fuel. Transit companies may opt to use biodiesel to help their localities meet federal Clean Air Act requirements.

The MTA is already experimenting with four buses that run on liquefied natural gas. That fuel also burns cleaner than diesel but requires measures to maintain its subzero temperature.

Warren Road exit of I-83 develops 'frost heave'

Donald Homberg knows a speed bump when he sees it, but he's a bit surprised to encounter one on a highway overpass.

When the State Highway Administration opened the new Interstate 83 exit at Warren Road in October, there was no speed bump. But in recent weeks, one has popped up at the foot of the westbound Warren Road bridge across I-83.

"What's that all about?" Mr. Homberg asks. "Is it going to get fixed or is the bridge settling?"

Intrepid Commuter turned to the SHA for an answer.

The speed bump was not installed deliberately. It was created by moisture penetrating underneath the asphalt. When the water freezes, it pushes upward, lifting the pavement to create a bump. It's called "frost heave."

SHA spokesman Chuck Brown said engineers suspect the problem may lie in the soil's tendency to retain water. Workers could mill the bump flat, but it would become a depression once it thawed.

Last week, highway crews posted a sign to alert drivers to the bump. Until the weather warms, it's probably best to use caution.

Changes are due at Franklin exit

Faithful readers will recall that in December, we wrote about safety problems at the Franklin Boulevard exit from Interstate 795.

Specifically, we shared a reader's complaint that drivers take the exit to eastbound Franklin too fast.

Well, the SHA has decided to take some overdue action. Signs are being installed to alert motorists to the danger.

A series of arrows has been posted around the exit's curve. A curve warning sign is scheduled to be installed soon.

Also of interest: The SHA plans to conduct a skid test on the ramp to determine whether the pavement is slippery. If it's found to be a problem, the ramp may be resurfaced in the spring, a spokesman said.

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