Propulsion By Propane Is Hot Topic For Nauset Schools

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Nauset Regional School District

A propane-fueled school bus.  Wikipedia/BMRR

ORLEANS — Nauset Public Schools students may travel in propane-fueled buses starting next September.

At a meeting of the joint school committees Oct. 26, the Eastham, Orleans and Wellfleet boards and the regional school committee authorized Superintendent Tom Conrad to negotiate an agreement with the Cape Cod Collaborative to provide student transportation starting next fall. Brewster's committee did not have a quorum for the session held at Eastham Town Hall and will vote later on the recommendation of the transportation subcommittee.

If an agreement is adopted, the Collaborative would put out a request for bids for buses. The subcommittee has investigated the cost-savings of using propane gas rather than diesel fuel and voted on Aug. 30 to make that recommendation. The motion presented at the Oct. 26 meeting of the joint committees did not specify the use of propane, but offered an opportunity to present information about fueling options to all the town and regional boards.

Last week, Conrad set the stage by noting that transportation costs have gone up 40 percent over the three years of the system's current contract with First Student. “For 12 years, this district did not have a competitive bidding process for its bus contract,” he said. “We've only had one bidder each of those four times.”

Conrad said it was “no secret (that) we are heavily involved” in meetings with the Cape Cod Collaborative, a non-profit owned by the Cape's school committees, to discuss the next cycle's transportation contract. The Collaborative's executive director, Paul Hilton, said his agency already provides specialized transportation services for Nauset and general school transportation for Bourne, Mashpee, Nantucket, and Truro.

“Nauset faces some unique issues,” Hilton said, including “a large geographical area and linear geography. The two regional schools are not co-located.” He said the system, which does not own its bus fleet, is “always paying for new vehicles” as a “perpetual lessor.” Low ridership on many routes and significant field trip and athletic costs are another concern.

Having its own fleet, said Hilton, would let Nauset recruit and maintain drivers within the district, offer long-term control of assets leading to “very low costs” after borrowing for the vehicles is paid off, and allow municipal use of buses under the authority of the school committees.

Hilton said the “most significant pool of people” the Collaborative draws on for drivers are “retirees to the area” who use their checks “to buy groceries, pay rent, or pay their greens fees to golf courses” as well as “local parents with kids in school.”

Admitting that “there's nothing cheap about transportation,” Hilton said Nauset would achieve significant savings by controlling its own fleet whether buses were fueled by diesel or propane.

The joint committees heard presentations from Jim Anderson of Anderson Blue Bird Bus Sales of New England and Derek Whatley of Roush Clean Tech regarding the merits of propane-fueled buses. Whatley showed a video in which Boston Public Schools employees celebrated the ongoing changeover of that fleet to propane. One said the fuel savings would offset the small premium in the cost of a bus in two years, while another saw a 40 percent drop in maintenance time.

Whatley said 12,000 propane buses operate in more than 750 school districts nationwide. Ninety percent of the world's propane comes from the U.S. and is the globe's third most popular motor fuel, though it's way down the list back home. He said its use reduces dangerous emissions (“We're 75 percent cleaner than diesel, with no additives,” he said, adding that propane engines “run up to 50 percent quieter than diesels.”

Conrad, who said the administration has talked with Cape Cod National Seashore about its fleet of propane buses, noted that staffers have also talked to garages in the district that are capable of maintaining diesel or propane vehicles. “We really don't want to be sending our buses down to Hyannis or Bourne to be repaired,” he said.

Another workshop on transportation was to be held today (Nov. 2) at 5 p.m. to answer any follow-up questions, which would lead into individual meetings with the four town committees and the regional school board.