Ahhh ... love that new bus smell.
Or, in this case, the lack of smell.
A record-setting fleet of 435 new propane-powered school buses has rolled into Nebraska to transport students in the Omaha and Millard school districts this fall.
Bus company officials boast this fleet is the largest propane school bus fleet in the country, ahead of the Portland, Ore., and Los Angeles Unified school districts.
While kids and parents should like the quieter ride and safety features of the shiny buses, taxpayers should appreciate the fuel savings, and environmentalists will enjoy the engines that don't spew black exhaust like diesel.
Company officials see the contract with the two metro districts as a big step toward establishing propane as a cost-effective and reliable alternative to diesel school bus fleets.
“This is a game-changer in our industry,” David Prince, the Omaha general manager of Student Transport of Nebraska, said Friday at the company's new facility near 54th and L Streets.
Elena Craft, a health scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, agreed Friday that the buses will provide significant health advantages over diesel buses.
However, Craft, of Austin, Texas, said scientists have to do further study on whether the propane production process is also eco-friendly.
The transition to cleaner bus fleets that started a decade or so ago was spurred by evidence that air inside buses was five to 10 times more harmful than outside air, she said.
“A lot of times, when the door opens and closes a lot on the diesel buses, it sucks some of the pollution from the crank case in the engine or from the tail pipe of the bus in front of it or from the exhaust system of the bus itself,” she said.
Denis Gallagher, chairman and chief executive officer of Student Transport Inc. of Wall, N.J., said he's been working with bus manufacturer Blue Bird over past five years to perfect the propane buses.
A subsidiary, Student Transportation of Nebraska, is operating the fleet in Omaha.
The buses belch 60 percent less carbon monoxide, he said.
“Our drivers like them because the vehicles are so much quieter.” Gallagher said.
The buses have been rolling off the Blue Bird assembly line in Fort Valley, Ga., over the past two months. The last bus is scheduled to arrive Wednesday to a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Gov. Dave Heineman is scheduled to attend.
Gallagher said the price of propane buses has run higher than their counterparts that burn traditional fuels, but the large order for Millard and Omaha brought the price down.
The Millard and Omaha school boards approved a four-year, $25 million-a-year agreement with the company, which replaced longtime bus contractor First Student. The OPS portion will be $19.5 million a year, an annual savings of about $300,000 a year from the previous contract. Millard will pay the remaining $5.5 million. The agreement includes an option for a two-year extension.
The company is contracting locally with Sapp Bros. to provide the propane and the required fuel tanks and pumps, he said.
Propane buses get fewer miles to the gallon, but the fuel's lower price still makes for savings, Gallagher said.
Propane costs about $1.60 a gallon, and diesel about $3.65 a gallon.
The fuel efficiency of diesel engines is about 7 to 8 mpg, while propane buses get between 5 and 6 mpg, he said.
For longer routes and other trips, the company will keep nearly 100 diesel buses in Omaha.
Gallagher said the buses have proven themselves in the heat of Los Angeles and the bitter cold of Minnesota.
The Eastern Carver County Schools started running propane buses three years ago through a contract with Student Transportation, said John Thomas, transportation coordinator for the Minnesota district of nearly 10,000 students.
Thirty-two of the district's 110 buses are propane powered.
Thomas said the buses saved the district about $72,000 in fuel costs last year.
“That's huge savings that we can put back into the classrooms and do other things with,” he said.
As for safety, Thomas said the propane is no more dangerous than other fuels.
Gallagher said the propane fuel tanks are 20 times more structurally puncture-resistant than the typical gas and diesel tanks.
Beyond the fuel savings, other features should please drivers, parents and kids, he said.
The buses have three surveillance cameras inside the vehicle and one pointing outside. They have global positioning systems enabling dispatchers to locate the vehicle. Systems automatically alert dispatchers if a bus is idling too long, so dispatchers can alert the driver to shut off the engine.
The buses also are equipped with what the company calls a “child check” system to make sure drivers don't inadvertently leave a child on the bus. At the end of a route, the driver must walk to the back of the bus and push a button to prevent an alarm from sounding.
Although some states are requiring seat belts on school buses, Nebraska does not, so the new buses don't have them, he said.