Propane-powered school buses start up more easily and warm up faster in frigid weather than old diesel models. Their engines run cleaner, cost less to maintain, are quieter and don’t emit as much tailpipe pollution as traditional school buses.
But few Connecticut school districts are making the switch from diesel to propane.
Diesel buses get slightly better mileage, according to experts, but propane costs less and there is even a federal subsidy available to help schools cover propane fuel expenses. Municipalities and school districts from Los Angeles to New York City and Boston have propane school vehicles in their fleets.
Despite the apparent advantages, buses fueled by propane or other non-diesel alternatives like natural gas now make up only about 5.5 percent of Connecticut’s nearly 8,000 student transportation vehicles, according to state records.
That appears to be changing, as more financially stressed cities and towns move toward a type of school vehicle that costs far less to maintain than diesel-powered buses. “We do see a trend toward alternative fuels,” said Justyne Lobello, marketing manager for Blue Bird Corp., one of the biggest school bus manufacturers in the U.S.
“Our maintenance is almost $1,600 less per bus [compared to diesel vehicles] on our annual contract,” said Burke LaClair, business manager for Simsbury’s school district. Simsbury just invested in nine new propane buses for its 29-vehicle student transportation fleet.
Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti, who five years ago led the move to get his city to change over to propane buses, said officials there have no regrets. In addition to cutting air pollution emissions, Lauretti said, “We get a federal subsidy of 50 cents per gallon for our propane.”
Experts say the apparent reluctance on the part of Connecticut school districts is the result of several factors.
Most school bus companies in this state and around the U.S. remain committed to diesel, and many communities have long-running relationships with those operators. “About 80 percent of school buses across the country are still diesel,” Lobello said.
Cities, towns and school districts troubled by budget cuts and rising expenses also have to consider that propane and other alternative fuel buses cost more than traditional diesel vehicles, and involve more up-front expenses for things like fueling stations.
Lobello said a new propane-powered school bus can cost from $85,000 to more than $100,000, depending on the options the buyer wants. New diesel buses can run $3,000 to $15,000 less per vehicle than propane versions, according to experts.
LaClair said the first five propane buses purchased by Simsbury cost just under $88,000 each. At the moment, the price for propane is about 40 cents a gallon less than for diesel, LaClair said last week. He expects Simsbury to eventually replace all its diesel buses with propane, assuming they don’t run into any significant problems with these first vehicles.
Environmentalists are also now beginning to lobby for schools and municipalities to move toward electric-powered buses and away from all fossil fuels, including propane.
But that may be an even harder sell than getting schools to move to propane, in part because e-buses now have a limited range of up to 100 miles before they need recharging. Some school officials in hilly Connecticut towns also worry that electric buses won’t have enough power to make it up steep grades.
Another issue is that e-buses cost even more than propane-powered school vehicles, Lobello said.
One development that could get more school districts to move toward alternative fuels like propane or electric buses is the $55 million Connecticut expects to get as its share of Volkswagen’s huge fraud settlement. The German auto giant agreed to pay $4.3 billion to the U.S. as a penalty for cheating on emissions tests on its diesel-powered cars and trucks.
Connecticut expects to get its share of that money over the next 10 years, and environmentalists at the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters want the state to use that money to help communities buy alternative fuel school buses.
Propane is “still a dirty emission fuel … compared to zero- or really low-emission vehicles,” said Lori Brown, the league’s executive director. Brown’s organization has started a petition campaign to urge Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration to use millions of dollars in new funding that should soon be available for green transportation projects to aid cities and towns in the purchase of electric buses.
While it may still be a fossil fuel, several studies have found that propane buses pollute less than diesel school vehicles.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities AFLEET program, propane buses pump out 12 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than comparable diesel vehicles.
David Bascetta, director of facilities for the Torrington school system, said one other big advantage to propane buses is that they start far more easily and quicker than diesels in sub-freezing temperatures. “They warm up a lot quicker, a big advantage in driver and passenger comfort,” he said.
Torrington now has 43 propane-powered buses, Bascetta said.
Transportation and school officials in towns that have gone the propane route are enthusiastic about their choice and think other communities should follow suit, for both environmental and financial reasons.
“It would help all across the state,” Bascetta said.
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