Back to school

September 1, 2002 By    

Just in time for the current back-to-school season, a $50 million program is getting under way in Texas to help school districts add new, clean fuel propane buses to their pupil transportation fleets. And that program is expected to be just the start of a major national effort to clean up school buses, spurred by new legislation and the Environmental Protection Agency’s concerns about clean air and children’s health.

The new Adopt-A-Bus program, which has the potential to put hundreds of propane buses on the road in Texas within the next three years, is billed as a pilot program the EPA hopes will attractively demonstrate the concept for a larger rollout nationwide. Organized in cooperation with the American Lung Association of Texas, it is expected to have a significant health impact upon school children.

Major corporate sponsors in the Dallas and Houston areas are being signed up, with a goal of $30 million in corporate donations to help clear the air in their communities. A full-time fundraiser working out of the Lung Association office in Houston under an EPA grant is soliciting corporate sponsorship, including Diamond sponsors at $250,000 each, and Sapphire sponsors at $100,000. Emerald sponsors will be in for $25,000 apiece.

Legislation that could also make $300 million in federal grants available nationally as seed money and incentives to replace older diesel buses with newer clean fuel vehicles – the nationwide rollout of this program – was pending at press time.

The pilot program could put 500 new buses on the road in Texas during the three-year effort. The emphasis will be upon replacing older buses first. EPA emissions standards for diesel buses first began to have a significant impact in 1990, so the early push will be to replace older buses, produced before those emissions standards were in place.

The initial push will be to replace pre-1993 diesel models, according to Clovis Steib, EPA’s coordinator for the program. About 10 percent of funding will be earmarked for additional fueling infrastructure and vehicle maintenance.

Only 130 school districts in 17 states use cleaner, alternative-fueled school buses. More than 440,000 buses used nationally are overage diesel vehicles, according to the EPA.
Only 130 school districts in 17 states use cleaner, alternative-fueled school buses. More than 440,000 buses used nationally are overage diesel vehicles, according to the EPA.

The Texas Adopt-A-Bus project is under the auspices of EPA Region 6. Steib says all school districts will have to apply for funding, and the program will be full-neutral. Grants will be made on the basis of four criteria:

1. Districts that have the highest percentages of students below the federal poverty level as indicated by participation in the “free lunch” program;

2. Districts that are in areas with the most ozone, particulate and air toxics pollution, those with the largest numbers of older diesel buses;

3. Districts with the largest numbers of pre-1993 buses;

4. Those with existing alternative fueling infrastructure.

The old, polluting diesel buses will be taken off the road permanently. Each will be crushed and sold for scrap, in a process that will have to be documented to EPA.

One Texas district intending to apply for funding – the Dallas County district – operates a regional system that serves eight area school districts with a total of 1,280 buses on 1,100 routes. Dallas County has six active refueling stations for propane, with storage of over 100,000 gallons. Manager Tim Jones notes his agency is highly enthusiastic about its experience with propane as a motor fuel.

“We’re very happy with it,” he says. In 1992-93, Dallas County experimented with CNG buses and propane/diesel engines. “CNG didn’t have any range. Still doesn’t,” he recalls. “Propane has a comparable mileage range to gasoline.”

The Dallas County district’s drivers refuel their vehicles each time they come in. Compared to CNG dispensers, propane pumps are convenient. “It’s easier to fill, it’s faster,” he says.

Jones is also happy with the relatively lower cost of installing propane fueling facilities, even compared with diesel. A diesel fueling site with 160,000 gallons in storage and two dispensers costs more than $100,000 to install, he estimates.

“You can put in a propane refueling site for under $30,000. The infrastructure is a lot cheaper,” he says.

The Dallas pupil transportation agency uses 165 million gallons of propane annually; 1 million gallons of diesel fuel, and 20,000 gallons of gasoline. In Texas in recent years, Jones says, propane has also had a price advantage over diesel fuel.

“Propane is 25 to 30 cents cheaper than diesel,” he says.

If the application process goes well for the Dallas agency, the EPA program is expected to be highly helpful, since its goal to buy newer buses has proven elusive.

“We’re trying to keep the fleet within 6.5 to 7 years average age over all,” he says. Unfortunately, whenever local school districts find themselves strapped for money, “the first thing they cut is the new buses.”

According to EPA, low-sulfur diesel fuel is not available for local use in Texas. As alternatives, school districts will weigh the relative advantages of new propane buses at about $60,000 apiece, CNG buses at $115,000, or hydrogen fuel cell buses at $500,000 on up. Clearly, the economics should be on propane’s side – if the dedicated buses are still available from manufacturers.

Blue Bird Corp. (Fort Valley, Ga.) markets one bus powered by a John Deere 8.1 L natural gas engine, but reportedly was considering ceasing production of dedicated propane school buses after 2002 – just as the federal, state and private grants and tax incentives for them are likely to begin kicking in.

But DOE recently awarded $200,000 to the Propane Promotion Consortium (ProCon) to develop a new propane school bus platform with Blue Bird. Blue Bird intends to have a propane school bus available for order early next year.

And the potential national market for low-emissions propane school buses is enormous. EPA has estimated that more than 440,000 school buses nationally are overage diesel vehicles. Buses built before 1991 emit at least six times more particulates and nearly three times more NOx than newer models, according to the federal environmental agency.

EPA is particularly interested in getting those old buses off the road, since they have particulate and NOx emissions that can be injurious to health, the agency says. Those emissions pose an especially high risk to children, who may suffer from increased asthma rates, chronic bronchitis, missed school days, hospitalizations, heart disease, cancer and even premature death due to air pollution.

Cleaner, alternative-fueled school buses are in use in only 130 school districts in 17 states, according to EPA. In Texas, many have chosen propane. Nationally, EPA estimates that 90 percent of 25 million schoolchildren who ride school buses are carried to school in diesel vehicles. About 3,000 of those are pre-1977 models still in service in 19 states.

EPA recently issued a “School Bus Report Card” that could not award “A”s to any state. The EPA survey found the worst school bus situations in California and Washington, earning those states a thumping “D.”

California received its low rating even though, during the 2000-2001 fiscal year, the state legislature there allocated $50 million to a school bus program that was far from fuel-neutral, and excluded propane school buses from participation. The state spent $12.5 million to retrofit old diesel buses; a similar amount was used to acquire new, so-called “green” diesel vehicles; and about half was used to purchase natural gas buses.

Nineteen states got only slightly better ratings of “C-” to “D+” and are in need of many new school buses. Another 23 states earned grades of “B-” to “C.”

The best buses were found in seven jurisdictions – Alabama; Delaware; the District of Columbia; Maryland; Massachusetts; Missouri; and Pennsylvania – but even those only merited a “B.”

Aging school buses are among the dirtiest vehicles on the road. These older buses emit clouds of harmful soot and smog-forming pollution. Removing 500 outdated buses from the roads in Texas is expected to eliminate 200 tons of air pollution annually, says Steib, the EPA program coordinator.

As this edition went to press, H.R. 4, introduced into Congress by Rep. Billy Tauzen, R- La., on July 27, 2001, was in a joint House-Senate conference committee. Tauzen has long been a friend of the propane industry. His bill includes language directing the secretaries of the Energy and Transportation departments to jointly establish a grant program for demonstrating and advancing the commercialization of alternative-fueled school buses.

It also has a provision for tax credits for dedicated alternative fuel vehicles and infrastructure.

That legislation is expected to include up to $300 million in grants for acquisition of alternative-fueled vehicles for use by state or local governments, as well as alternative fueled school buses and public transportation, airport vehicles, and motorized bicycles and scooters used by law enforcement, and state or local government or metropolitan transportation agencies. Under the bill , the agencies that receive the grants would have to equally match the federal funds.

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