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That Time a Presidential Candidate Spoke at STN EXPO

Sixteen years ago this month, the staff at STN was preparing as it prepares now: For conference season. Granted, the company had only the one STN EXPO in Reno. It would be a couple of years before STN acquired the TSD Conference from Roseann Schwaderer and a decade before launching STN EXPO East in Indianapolis, which moves to the Charlotte metropolitan area in North Carolina in March.

The first iteration of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean School Bus USA program also launched in 2008, three years after Congress approved the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act and the first $200 million in national competitive grants and low-cost loans. Within two years, the Clean School Bus USA program launched with more funding opportunities for emissions retrofits and lower emissions vehicle purchases.

We felt it was fitting to secure a keynote address in Reno that summer on the role school buses played and could play in improving the environment.

The speaker was Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

Today, he is running as a third-party candidate for U.S. president. Aside from playing a potential spoiler to either President Joe Biden or President Donald Trump in November, RFK, Jr., has become famous (or infamous) for his vocal opposition to the COVID-19 vaccine and for more than one conspiracy theory. He fights against the use of mercury in childhood vaccines that he claims, erroneously the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded, has contributed to the increase in diagnosed cases of autism.

What does this all have to do with student transportation, you ask?

Aside from, well, children — ultimately they are this industry’s business, no? — back then RFK, Jr., was known by most people as being the namesake of the man who would’ve been president but for an assassin’s bullet in 1968 and nephew of the man who was president and suffered the same fate four years earlier. But RFK, Jr., was also an outspoken environmental lawyer and outdoorsman. He railed against big oil and staunchly advocated for a transition to renewable fuels. Oh, and there was all that vaccine stuff. It was a coup for STN to secure him as keynote. So, I naïvely thought.

Despite a contract that stated his speech would not be political, he could not help himself. I vividly recall the moment when he told the audience, and I paraphrase, “I promised I wouldn’t get political, but what the heck.” The morose faces at our sponsor’s table told me all I needed to know.

I was in damage control mode. With tunnel vision, I shook his right hand following the speech, him mumbling something to the effect of, “I hope that was alright,” as he quickly turned. I don’t think I said a word.

The good news in all of this is STN earned plenty of capital with the speaker’s bureau. And in retrospect, the words of RFK, Jr., were prophetic. “We’re going to need federal help to make that transformation [away from school bus fossil fuels],” he told the attendees. “We need examples at every level but particularly the people who bring our kids to school every morning … We ought to be able to give them the resources they need to make their transportation infrastructure into an example for the rest of the country.”

Indeed, green transportation advocates agree that school buses make the best sense for electrification. Granted, there is no true zero-emissions vehicle solution yet from a well-to-wheel lifecycle perspective. But electrification, for school bus use cases at least, shows the most promise. Electric school buses come with plenty of challenges, but operations are succeeding. Read some of these stories this month in a mostly electric dedicated issue.

We recognize many readers remain adamantly opposed to electric, or extremely hesitant until the upfront cost is on par with diesel and range and infrastructure considerations get figured out. But electrification is working in many school districts large and small today, propped up by the $5 billion EPA Clean School Bus Program, part two. The next electric anxiety is coming as federal funds will start to wind down through the end of 2026, which is a mere two years away. Still, advocates say the economics of electric school buses are already penciling out.

“The investment the federal government makes in transforming our school transportation infrastructure to sustainable is going to come back to our people and the federal government 10 times over,” RFK, Jr., said. Perhaps he is crazy … like a fox?

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the June 2024 issue of School Transportation News.

Related: STN EXPO Reno Keynote to Highlight Federal E-Rate Funding for School Buses
Related: STN EXPO Reno Keynote Speaker Brings Message of Positivity
Related: EPA Clean School Bus Program Allocates Funding for 269 Propane Autogas School Buses
Related: (STN Podcast E205) Adopt & Adapt: National Perspectives on Clean School Bus Choices

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