I am sure happy to put 2020 in the rearview mirror. Without a doubt, it has been the most unexpected and challenging year our industry has ever faced. “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” said boxing legend Mike Tyson. COVID-19 packed one strong punch, too. But like any good boxer, we have to keep bobbing and weaving long enough to recover and jab our way out of trouble.
The school bus industry has shown true grit in managing this health crisis and supporting the families in their communities. Our team has reported countless stories of kindness about food deliveries to hungry children and providing access to Wi-Fi via school buses to support distance learning. Closing then reopening schools. It makes me dizzy thinking about it. But many lessons can be learned along the way.
I love the quote, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” This sudden jolt to the school transportation industry should serve as a wake-up call for how we can perform our duties better and in ways, we may have never thought possible before. This forced transformation we have experienced includes new pandemic safety measures, technology, and fleet optimization tools. Plus, working more from home instead of the office seems to likely be the new normal.
I like to use the stock market as a fairly accurate indicator of economic health. The V-shape curve points to a quick recovery amid a stimulus funding package and vaccine relief in the first half of the year. But fears of a recession loom with continued global health challenges, supply chain bottlenecks, and increasing costs remaining at the forefront of the conversation.
I keep an eye on major publicly traded companies, particularly those aligned to the school transportation industry, for information and forward guidance. Overall, I am happy to report the outlooks are improving over previous quarterly reports from many key suppliers to our industry.
A standard benchmark for industry health is new OEM school bus manufacturing data. As reported on page 12, the numbers were down by roughly 18 percent. OEM industry insiders shared with me that they anticipate continued softness in the marketplace. I see the possibility of late 2020-2021 budget spending which might lessen the overall impact. The true test will be if 2021-2022 budgets remain unscathed or receive a significant haircut.
Clean diesel school buses still remain the number one buying choice, but after-treatment systems continue to be a sticking point for buyers. Also, keep in mind diesel engines are going to be subject to more stringent EPA emission requirements in the coming years, which will likely increase overall unit costs. One bright spot is alternative fuel and energy school bus purchases, which continued to be relatively positive. Propane-powered school buses remain the green market share leader with a slight volume move downward. CNG school buses continue to slide lower, while electric made relatively big gains.
Many OEMs are gearing up for a big move into electrification and V2G in 2021. Keep in mind that school bus manufacturers are forecasting that a third to a half of all new school bus sales in 10 years will be electric. Many anticipate the new Biden administration investing in green energy. Plus, large public utilities have taken a strong interest in developing and funding school bus electrification projects so that will drive things forward.
The continued appetite for information and grant funding for electric school buses and infrastructure has accelerated quicker than many industry professionals anticipated. In response, transportation directors I have spoken with are thinking differently.
Property taxes are always a major funding mechanism for operating revenue of municipalities, school districts and transportation departments. The National Association of Realtors predicts continued low mortgage rates at 3.1 percent, a 3-percent home price increase, a 9-percent existing home sales increase, and a 23 percent surge in new-home sales. Mortgage applications are also up 20 percent year-over-year, which reflects the number of buyers in the pipeline approved for mortgages and ready to buy.
I predict that 2021 will be the year of recovery, with a major focus on technology, safety and fleet optimization. According to a recent readership study, over 446 subscribers identified new technology products that they were interested in purchasing over the coming year. While speaking with numerous suppliers and transportation professionals at the recent Bus Technology Summit and TSD Virtual conference, I heard more of the same with new technology RFPs, demos and bids coming soon.
Be sure to utilize this ultimate resource guide of contacts to research and help your team throughout the year to discover new products and the companies that sell them. Also, I invite you to participate in at least one of our virtual or in-person conferences this year. Learn more at stnexpo.com.
I’m proud to be part of an industry of people that show true grit amid adversity. Bravo!
Editor’s Note: As reprinted from the 2021 Buyers Guide.