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Schools consider propane-fueled buses

Soaring costs prompt some to consider cheaper, greener fuels – but upfront costs can be steep.

By Sarah More McCannContributor of The Christian Science Monitor / August 14, 2008

Some 25 million children ride 500,000 mostly diesel-fueled buses to school. Cost and climate concerns have some districts exploring alternative fuels.

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The largest ground transportation system in the country is gearing up again, and that means confronting the rising cost of fuel. School buses shuttle some 25 million kids on school days, and while most districts have had a summer’s respite from gas prices, those bills will start coming due again soon.

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“Even [districts] that budgeted for a significant increase didn’t budget for a 100 percent price increase,” says Mike Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation. Last fall, he says, fuel cost about $1.95 a gallon. By spring, it was $4.05 in places.

So why not switch to a fuel that’s not only cheaper, but greener as well? Some have done so already: The Portland, Ore., school district, for example, received a $600,000 federal tax credit last year for its liquid propane-fueled buses. Propane is cheaper and cleaner than diesel, which powers about 90 percent of the country’s 500,000 school buses.

“I was not a believer in propane,” says Phil Weber, Portland’s director of student transportation. “But I crunched the numbers and propane does pay off.”

Portland has used propane buses since 1983. But making the switch requires up-front investments in infrastructure and bus conversions or purchases.

John Kelly, executive director for transportation and support services at the Richardson, Texas, public schools, says the June fuel bill alone for his maintenance and operations fleet was $30,000. It had averaged just $8,000 a month a few years ago. “That takes a bite out of the budget,”

Mr. Kelly says. Of the school district’s 34,000 students, some 5,000 take the bus.

But by next spring, Richardson students will be riding buses fueled by propane, a move Mr. Kelly hopes will cut fuel costs by 50 percent.
Working with Dallas County Schools, the district considered switching to either biodiesel or propane, but propane is readily available for less than $2 a gallon, Kelly says.

Another incentive for the switch was the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has designated North Texas a “nonattainment” area, meaning that it does not meet federal standards for air quality. Since then, the district has gotten the OK to build a propane fueling station, Kelly says.

Some 130 school districts and other school-bus operators nationwide run more than 2,600 natural gas and propane school buses, according to a 2001 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. This is admittedly only a small fraction of the 14,000 or so school districts across the nation.

The Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas, currently fuels some 250 of its 700 school buses with propane, and was the first school district to order 16 new Bluebird buses built propane-ready.

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