City officials plan to build a compressed natural gas fueling station with retail sales to the general public and private-sector fleets at 2333 Morse Road.

City officials plan to build a compressed natural gas fueling station with retail sales to the general public and private-sector fleets at 2333 Morse Road.

The property, which the city is in the process of acquiring, was formerly the site of a White Castle restaurant.

What will be new is how the facility fits in with Mayor Michael B. Coleman's commitment to the environment, according to William A. Burns, the city's fleet operations manager.

Members of the Northland Community Council's development committee voted 12-0, with two abstentions, at last week's monthly meeting to approve a rezoning request after hearing a presentation primarily from Burns, but also from Fleet Administrator Kelly W. Reagan.

The city could have built the station to supply the cleaner-burning, less expensive form of natural gas for its fleet without seeking the zoning change, Reagan said, but without retail sales being allowed.

That, however, would not be the right thing to do, he told committee members.

Reagan said opening the site to retail sales for individuals and corporations with CNG-powered vehicles encourages more to make the switch.

Columbus should "lead by example," according to Burns.

"The vehicle technology is here, the fueling sites are not," he said.

"It's not a fad, it's a reality," Reagan added. "It's something others will be following."

The goal is to have the CNG station in operation by this time next year, Burns said at the committee meeting in the Northland Performing Arts Center.

The project is estimated to cost $5.4 million, including property acquisition, he said.

The city has around 5,800 vehicles that use 3.4 million gallons of fuel a year, Reagan said. Exploring switching vehicles, particularly diesel-guzzling refuse trucks, over to CNG began in 2008, Burns said.

The city now has 22 CNG-powered vehicles, mostly garbage trucks but also some other large vehicles, nine street sweepers, two snowplows and a sewer Vactor, Reagan told committee members.

CNG costs about 40 percent less than diesel and gasoline and is 70 to 80 percent cleaner, according to Reagan. The gradual switch of the city's fleet will save millions of dollars in the general fund, he added.

With an additional 18 CNG-powered vehicles coming in the first quarter of 2013, Burns said the Morse Road site and, further out in time, one on Roberts Road near Interstate 270, will join the only existing municipal compressed natural gas station, off Groves Road on the East Side. That station opened in August 2012 and pumped 5,100 gallons of CNG in its first six months of operation, at a savings to taxpayers of more than $100,000 over the cost of regular fuel.

The facilities include pumping stations as well as special equipment for compressing the same kind of natural gas used to heat private homes, according to Burns.

The Morse Road location is intended to be accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but personnel will not be present, save for a few hours of maintenance time on weekdays, Burns said. Retail sales would be by credit card.

"CNG fueling is actually safer than petroleum fueling," he assured NCC development panelists.

If a fueling dispenser were to be knocked over, only a small cloud of gas would escape before 13 different shut-down buttons kick in, Burns said. The Division of Fire would automatically be summoned in case of such an occurrence.

Committee chairman Dave Paul pointed out that the C-5 zoning designation being sought also would allow for a carryout or a car wash.

No scratch-off lottery sales are anticipated, Burns said.

In response to concerns from committee members, he also said improvements were planned to road surfaces in the area of the proposed station so they could withstand the increase in heavy vehicle traffic.