Bratislava's first bus running on compressed natural gas brings some of the city's public transport up to EU environment standards.
Although more than 30 such buses run in other towns across the country, including Nitra and Trnava, the Bratislava bus was the city's first, and part of a wider project to convert all engines in the capital's 520-strong bus fleet to run on compressed gas in the next 10 years. The move was hailed by both environmentalists and Bratislava Mayor Jozef Moravčík as a big step in reducing air pollution from transport in the city.
"This is the first step towards cleaner Bratislava air, and stopping gasoline engines from suffocating its citizens," said Ladislav Ďurkovič of the environmental Ži a nechaj žiť (Live and Let Live) non-governmental agency.
But while DPB aims to become more environmentally friendly and follow the example of many European cities which have already turned to compressed gas, it, and Bratislava's municipal authorities backing the project, has run into a large problem - money.
The cost of installing an engine to run on natural gas is 900,000 crowns ($18,000). But while the investment can eventually be offset by a 50% savings in running costs after switching engines from gasoline to compressed fuel, the company is struggling to raise the initial funds in needs to change more buses.
Moreover, it says, it's getting little or no help from a national government which it claims has not done enough to fund environmental projects.
"There is no direct help from the government for environmental projects, except for the proclamation that they advocate such things," said Jaroslav Kováč, head of DPB's technical department.
"The government invests funds into the broader costs of running municipal transport, which we then channel into modernisation. But nothing extra is allocated for projects like these."
No new money
DPB hatched plans to convert its buses 11 years ago. But over that time, it says, successive state governments have refused to provide extra money to the project, instead continuing to allocate funds from the state budget to cover merely the costs of maintaining the firm's fleet.
DPB plans to exchange gasoline engines in 13 buses for motors using compressed gas by the end of the year, 11 of which will be co-financed with state gas utility Slovenský plynárenský priemysel (SPP), and two paid for from its own funds. If DPB meets ambitious fund-raising targets this year it can add another 40 buses to that conversion tally, the firm says.
Like the transport company, municipalities say they want more state government funds to go directly to gas engine conversion projects - as has happened in many EU countries running similar public transport schemes - instead of towards covering general transport expenses.
The Environment Ministry, though, argues that municipalities are missing out on available money by not entering the tenders the ministry holds for funding environmental schemes. The ministry explains it simply has no more money to hand out beyond that awarded to projects through tenders.
"The one billion crowns we get a year from the state budget does not cover all our funding needs, which is why we need to develop bilateral ties with other countries for funding environmental projects," said Ján Janiga of the Environment Ministry.
"However, many groups which have projects don't participate in some of the tenders we announce, and then the Finance Ministry gets furious that we haven't used the money available. Some projects that are submitted also simply don't fulfil tender criteria," he added.
No new thinking
Environmental organisations say that the problem DPB is facing with its bus conversion scheme betrays the government's general apathy to environmental projects.
"The government could do more in this field. It should focus on tying finances directly to environmental projects, and it should motivate people to protect the environment by offering tax breaks on projects involving alternative energy," said Vladimír Urbánek of AEA Technology, an environmental survey firm operating in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
The direct value-added tax charged by the state on the compressed gas engines for DPB's buses is 220,000 crowns, almost a quarter of the cost of each engine.
"Generally, environmental issues are not taken seriously and are thought of as a nuisance in Slovakia. People don't realise the consequences their actions might have," Urbánek added.
It's an attitude that many agree lies behind Slovakia's struggle to meet European Union (EU) environmental standards. Although bus engine conversion has not been demanded by the EU prior to Slovakia's possible accession in three years, the European Commission, an EU ruling body, has said that harmonising environmental standards with EU levels is one of the biggest challenges facing Slovakia in its accession drive. Converting buses in the capital, say observers, is bound to be welcomed in Brussels.
"This project is unambiguously positive for Slovakia's EU drive," said AEA Technology's Tim Young.
For the moment, though, DPB will have to wait and see how many compressed gas buses follow its first vehicle. Environmental activists, for their part, are happy that at least one 'green' bus is finally on the road after 11 years of planning.
"I'm pleased to see that at least there's been some movement towards this goal," said Ďurkovič.