St. Johns recommends to continue with propane-powered school buses

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A bus at the St. Johns Public Schools Transportation Department. Photo by Katie Winkler.

A bus at the St. Johns Public Schools Transportation Department. Photo by Katie Winkler.

By Katie Winkler
Clinton County Chatter staff reporter

ST. JOHNS — During the last St. Johns Board of Education meeting on Oct. 26, St Johns Public Schools Director of Business and Finance Kelly Corbett brought forward a recommendation to purchase two new buses, sell three old ones and begin a yearly replacement cycle.

Recommendations must be brought to the Board of Education three times before they can take action. During the Nov. 23 board members will vote for the recommendation and discuss how to move forward. Following this, if approved the transportation department will sign a contract and begin with the purchase.

District officials, such as Superintendent of Schools Dedrick Martin and Board of Education Vice President William Tennant, offered statements of encouragement towards the bus purchase recommendation.

St. Johns Public Schools Transportation Department. Photo by Katie Winkler.

St. Johns Public Schools Transportation Department. Photo by Katie Winkler.

Currently, St. Johns has 20 propane and seven diesel-engined buses. They plan to replace two of the propane buses and reduce their fleet by one.

“To be smart financially, we need to have a plan for replacement,” Corbett said. “This is our first step … so we don’t end up with buses that are not safe on the road and leave us needing to make a big purchase at once.”

Under the recommendation, they plan to purchase two International CE Propane school buses out of Lansing, from Capital City International Trucking, Inc. The cost of the two buses total $184,216.00.

The Michigan School Business Officials, including its associate executive director Scott Little, creates a bid system to make it easy for school districts to purchase buses for the best price.

“We go out and bid for all the various styles and sizes of school busses and the bus dealers do the program and go into it and access that pricing and purchase their buses throughout program. They can customize their bus,” he said. “We have propane buses as an option, but we don’t consider this a base specification.”

In 2010, $1.9 million of the school’s bond was spent on purchasing 20 brand-new Liquefied Petroleum (LP) Gas-fueled buses. Because the buses were all purchased at once, the average age of the fleet is all the same, Corbett said.

About 70 percent of students are transported to school by the buses. Because of this, the buses get run down easier, especially since half of the city is dirt roads, she said.

According to Andre Boehman, mechanical engineering professor at the University of Michigan and expert in diesel combustion, alternative fuels and emission control, said that propane is the smart option when considering the environmental effects.

“Historically, propane has been looked at as one of the clean, alternative fuels because it tends to have cleaner combustion and lower tail pipe admissions then you would have with gasoline or diesel fuel, regardless of the catalyst technology,” he said. “There are decades of work on propane vehicles. They generally show that they have admission benefits.”

Boehman said there are positives to both sides, so to make the right decision, there are many factors and numbers to consider.

“Propane is a domestic fuel. We have lots of supply and it will have cleaner tailpipe admissions, in general,” he said. “(Propane) will be less energy efficient than the diesel equivalent because they are running spark ignition engine versus a diesel compression ignition.”

Board of Education member Kevin Kirk voiced his concerns about purchasing new propane, rather than diesel, buses, including refueling and cost benefits.

“I just have trouble believing that the LP, in the long haul, will really return us money,” he said. “The other thing I see, is there are not a lot of places you can pull in with a LP vehicle and get fuel, especially if you needed an emergency fill. In my mind, that limits the use on the buses on the weekends or evenings, should they go beyond the extended mileage.”

Fuel costs for diesel and propane buses. Chart by Katie Winkler.

Fuel costs for diesel and propane buses. Chart by Katie Winkler.

But for these instances, the seven diesel buses will be kept on hand. Corbett pointed out that the diesels would continue to be used for long drives, including field trips.

To make sure the school district is running safe buses, St. Johns will be returning to a replacement cycle that St. Johns had before the 2010 bond. This will ensure that all buses are up to date.

“I applaud districts that have committed to the propane buses. Certainly from a environmental perspective, they are the best,” Little said.

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