School district debuts propane buses

HELOTES, TX While many districts across the U.S. converted school buses from diesel-run to propane up until a few years ago, the new buses are the first to come off the production line propane-ready, said Erin Lake, a spokeswoman for Fort Valley, Ga.-based Blue Bird Corp.

The 16 buses are cheaper and cleaner than traditional diesel models, said Northside Independent School District superintendent John Folks.

"So as we continue to move in the direction of using propane, certainly it's going to be something that's going to help us, from a district standpoint, handle the increasing fuel costs," Folks said. "But in addition to that, it's something that we think we are contributing in teaching our children ... the importance of being environmentally friendly."

Folks said a gallon of diesel costs about $3.85 a gallon, while a gallon of propane is $1.73.

The district is the fourth-largest in Texas and among the 40 largest in the nation, with an expected 88,500 students next school year, Folks said.

The number of students riding the bus to and from school is expected to rise from 42,000 to 45,000 next year because parents will try to cut back on driving to save on gas, said Rafael Salazar, the district's transportation department director.

Salazar said the district will also get a rebate of 50 cents on the gallon for propane through a federal tax credit.

Accounting for past diesel-to-propane conversions, Salazar said 367 of the district's 739 buses, including the 16 new vehicles, run on propane.

On Monday, the district received a check for more than $66,300 from the Texas Railroad Commission, the state energy agency, to help defray the cost of the buses. The propane models cost about $83,000 each -- or $11,000 more than diesel models, said Curtis Donaldson, president and CEO of Georgetown, Texas-based CleanFuel USA, whose systems are in the new buses.

Michael Williams, chairman of the Railroad Commission, handed out the money, which came from a U.S. Department of Energy grant.

"Not only will youngsters breathe easier on this bus," Williams said. "The taxpayers are going to breathe easier as well."

Lake said Blue Bird is the only company making a propane bus. She said Blue Bird sold a propane bus in 2002 that was made with a diesel engine, then updated, but she said the new model is a "dedicated propane" bus, meaning it will not take any fuel but propane.

Albert Burleigh, a regional sales manager for Blue Bird, said about 300 of the new propane buses have been sold.

IC Bus, another major bus manufacturer based in Warrenville, Ill., doesn't have propane buses, but has its own alternative-fuel option. Company spokesman Keith Kladder said the company offers two hybrid models. He said there are about 20 of the diesel-electric hybrids in service in several states.

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