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Natural Gas Cars Dwindle In Popularity

Compressed-natural-gas vehicles, once the darling of the alternative-fuel movement, are overshadowed by cars powered by electricity, propane and hydrogen.

PHOENIX (AP) -- Compressed-natural-gas vehicles, once the darling of the alternative-fuel movement, are being overshadowed by cars powered by electricity, propane and hydrogen.

CNG vehicles enjoyed a brief popularity after a tax-incentive program implemented in 2000 by the Legislature backfired.

Eight years later, the number of CNG vehicles registered with the Arizona Motor Vehicle Division has dwindled below that of electric vehicles.

Those remaining are finding fewer places in metro Phoenix to fill up because of a lack of demand. People interested in owning CNG cars are having trouble getting their hands on new models. And some owners are turning to other alternative fuels that they say are less of a hassle.

Compressed-natural-gas cars are based on decades-old technology and are powered by natural gas instead of conventional liquid-petroleum fuel such as gasoline and diesel. Like gas water heaters, stoves and dryers, burning natural gas is cheaper and cleaner because it doesn't emit pollutants associated with gasoline. Natural gas also is considered as safe or safer than gasoline.

Al Brown, former director of the Maricopa County Environmental Services Department, recently sold his 1999 Honda Civic CNG and bought a Toyota Prius hybrid that runs on gasoline and electricity. He said he was driving farther and farther to find a CNG station before he sold the vehicle.

"CNG cars pretty much beat the socks off any other vehicle out there," Brown said, lamenting that he had to sell his car earlier this year. "If I was ensured easy access to the fuel, if I could still get it, I would have kept it. But I had to drive significantly out of my way -- 10 miles round trip twice a week -- burning natural gas all the way."

Brown, who lives in Ahwatukee and now works at Arizona State University Polytechnic in east Mesa, said he became discouraged when two CNG stations he had used closed. He also became worried about maintenance after finding just one auto shop, SanTan Honda Superstore of Chandler, with certified CNG technicians in Arizona.

"It's not one of those things where you can just walk in anytime and get service," Brown said. "It was getting to be dicey for that reason. And the older the car got, the more it would need to be serviced."

The original alternative-fuels program gave tax rebates for vehicles that could run on CNG, liquefied petroleum gas (also known as propane) and other fuel sources besides conventional gasoline. The program was so popular that its estimated $10 million cost mushroomed to $483 million. It was widely criticized and eventually dumped because it allowed alternative-fuel car owners to drive in carpool lanes and bypass emissions tests even when they were running their vehicles on gasoline.

Some CNG owners say they're frustrated by the lack of support eight years later for early adopters who jumped on the alternative-fuel bandwagon.

"I can't really use it anymore," said Marty Midgley, a financial planner who works in Ahwatukee, lives in Mesa and drives a 2001 Yukon that runs on CNG and gas.

The first few years after Midgley bought the truck, he said, he ran it on CNG almost exclusively. But as CNG stations closed, he switched to gas.

He was filling his truck with CNG at a Trillium CNG station at a Southwest Gas facility in Tempe before taking it for an emissions test, which required the vehicle to be filled with CNG.

When Midgley bought the vehicle, the state exempted CNG vehicles from emission tests. But that changed once the state rebate program ended.

"I bought it when the state was doing the incentives because it was much cleaner, but after they pulled the rug out on it, you had to go for emissions every year," he said.

Midgley said he wants to sell the vehicle, "but I don't know how you could. Who would buy it?"

The problem for the state's nearly 6,000 current CNG car owners is that their ranks are shrinking rather than growing. Some city vehicles that run on CNG are being replaced with conventional combustion-engine vehicles as they wear out.

And carmakers aren't keeping the pipeline filled with new CNG vehicles, even though some dealerships have customers waiting for the cars.

Jerry Polick, alternative-fuel manager at SanTan Honda Superstore of Chandler, said that the dealership is expecting a shipment of 2009 Honda CNGs but that he hasn't received a production or delivery schedule yet from Honda.

"We know that they are speeding up production of them, but we don't know when they'll make it to the dealers," he said.

Not everyone with a CNG vehicle believes compressed natural gas' future is dim.

Randy Fleischhauer, a retired risk manager attorney for Mesa, said he thinks the future of alternative-fuel vehicles is bright after the recent spike in gas prices.

Fleischhauer is leasing from Global Hydrogen a 2001 Ford Crown Victoria that runs on CNG.

"I think it's on its way," he said of the alternative-fuel movement. "Just listen to the politicians. They're all talking about it now."

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