New School Transportation Studies Compare Costs, Advantages and Wages

Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit organization that is focused on improving education and life outcomes for underserved children, released a group of three new studies today on vital issues that are shaping school transportation. Costs and wages were studied and are presented below in condensed format.

One key estimate from the third study below is that “districts spend a total of roughly $25 billion each year for school transportation. If all of this money were allocated towards new electric buses, it would only buy about 86,000 buses, replacing less than 20 percent of diesel school buses at current cost levels.”

The three reports build off of last month’s “The Challenges and Opportunities in School Transportation Today,” and 2017’s, “Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century,” by examining three key school transportation issues.

  • What is stopping the spread of electric school buses
  • How schools are using transportation to drive integration and choice at the same time
  • Why longer distances to school could be bad news for student safety

Phillip Burgoyne-Allen, an analyst at Bellwether and lead author of the first study, observed that “too often, transportation is a footnote in education policy discussions.”

STUDY 1

Often, school transportation systems are an afterthought in policy conversations around complex topics like integration and choice, to the detriment of students and district budgets alike. Through smart policy choices and planning, it is possible for states, districts, and schools to tackle this challenge and focus on equity in school transportation.

Transportation is one of the few tools that can sever the link between where students live and where they attend school. As a result, school transportation services are a critical component of multiple models that seek to provide school choice, while also increasing levels of integration—including magnet schools, diverse-by-design charter schools and districts using controlled choice. Based on our findings in this brief, we have several recommendations for policymakers and other education leaders.

As states continue to enact policies that expand choice, state leaders should consider how these policies, along with budget decisions, affect school transportation. When students travel further from home to access schools, it often places an additional transportation burden on schools, districts and families. For many families, especially those who are low- income or from underserved groups, school choice without transportation is no choice at all.

To address these challenges, states should provide adequate overall funding to support school transportation systems, and ensure that transportation funding levels are comparable across school sectors.

In addition, states could factor school integration into their transportation funding formulas, which are usually based on inputs like [the] number of students transported and miles traveled. States could support and incentivize integrated schools by providing additional transportation funding based on levels of socioeconomic diversity at the school or district.

By improving efficiency, these types of models can better support the increasingly complex way that schools enroll students. This means that more students can access more schools—especially those who live in racially and economically segregated neighborhoods. In order to maximize the effectiveness of these innovative approaches, school transportation systems need stronger planning and analysis, and more resources.

Similarly, states could reward schools and districts that are able to demonstrate that their transportation operations are supporting more integrated schools, or create grants or other funding streams for transportation services or investments specifically aimed at integrating schools.

Despite possible funding challenges, schools and districts can still find innovative ways to limit their costs, while maintaining transportation services that are robust enough to support their goals around integration and choice.

For example, Jefferson County’s controlled choice enrollment system assigns students to schools in equitable clusters throughout the city. This is a complicated undertaking, often requiring the district to transport students across Louisville. But by using a depot model where some students transfer buses at certain stops—as they would while using public transit—JCPS is able to create the level of efficiency needed. This model has even allowed JCPS to reinvest in its fleet and increase driver pay.

Crossroads Charter Schools serves as another example. Crossroads provides transportation services, because it relies on enrolling students from segregated communities across Kansas City, in order to serve its mission to create diverse schools. Crossroads partners with three other local charter schools, in order to jointly contract for service. [This] has helped improve efficiency and reduce costs, allowing Crossroads to hire additional staff and raise salaries.

One way to achieve this is through better coordination within districts. If district staff [who are] responsible for student assignment and enrollment operate separately from staff in charge of school transportation, a lack of communication and coordination can lead to poor system design that falls short of providing equitable access to schools for all students.

Similarly, coordination between districts could also help create more integrated schools—especially for smaller districts that serve relatively homogenous communities. Though the Milliken ruling effectively struck down mandatory cross-district desegregation, districts could work together voluntarily to provide students with access to more schools—beyond those located in their district of residence—and support such efforts with cross-district transportation policies.

Some states already have policies in place that enable multi-district partnerships for some kinds of school transportation. For example, Rhode Island’s Statewide Student Transportation System provides shared transportation for schools of choice, students with disabilities, and students traveling out of their district. Michigan and Pennsylvania also have larger, “intermediate” education entities that can provide transportation services for students with disabilities.

STUDY 2

Riding a school bus may be the safest way for a student to get to school. School bus design elements are a big reason why students riding the bus are 70 times more likely to arrive at school safely when compared to students traveling in private vehicles.

While compartmentalization does protect students in some circumstances, recent tragedies show that it may not be sufficient in all cases.

NHTSA data show[s] that seat belt use is approximately 90 percent nationwide. The NHTSA only requires seat belts on school buses weighing under 10,000 pounds, because large, heavy buses provide protection through compartmentalization. Since most common models weigh more than 10,000 pounds, they are not required to have seat belts.

However, recent school bus crash tragedies in Maryland, Tennessee and New Jersey are leading some safety advocates and experts to reexamine the need for additional safety features on school buses. While compartmentalization can provide substantial protection for students in the most common forms of school bus crashes (front and rear collisions), lap and shoulder seat belts provide additional protection, including in some less common, dangerous crash scenarios such as rollovers.

Accordingly, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) now recommends that all states require three-point seat belts when investing in new buses, as does the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS).

The NTSB recommendation does not carry the same legal weight as an NHTSA regulation for school bus design, but eight states have adopted some form of seat belt requirement on school buses: Arkansas, California, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York and Texas. However, in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas, these new policies require local jurisdiction approval and/or the availability of state appropriations.

Requiring seat belts on new school buses may help over the long term, but what about existing school bus fleets? Retrofitting older buses with seat belts can cost up to $11,000 per vehicle and may require additional maintenance to keep them in good working order.

Because new buses can cost more than $100,000, retrofitting 10 existing buses with seat belts could cost as much as one new bus. While some advocate for this additional investment in student safety, others worry that unbuckling the belts might slow students down when evacuating a bus. However, three-point seat belts might actually help improve bus evacuation, by minimizing injuries and reducing the risk of being knocked unconscious.

It is illegal in all 50 states to pass a school bus on any undivided road with red flashing lights and its stop arm extended, but this is one of the most routinely ignored and most dangerous traffic safety violations. These violations, commonly known as “stop-arm” violations, are estimated to happen 13 million times each school year. Each of these violations increases the risk that a student will be hit by a vehicle as they get on or off the bus.

Some communities are working to address stop-arm violations through a combination of public awareness campaigns, increased levels of enforcement, and increased visibility of school buses through additional flashers and stop-arms. Some state legislatures have passed laws to increase fines for stop-arm violations and reduce speed limits around school bus stops.

Additionally, some jurisdictions have turned to technology to improve the enforcement of stop-arm violations. Sixteen states have authorized the use of automated enforcement through stop-arm camera systems on school buses, with some states dedicating a portion or all of the resulting ticket revenue to improving school and/or public transportation safety.

While the use of stop-arm cameras is still new in many communities, some are seeing positive results. In Cobb County, Georgia, stop-arm violations dropped by 50 percent after stop-arm cameras were installed. Stop-arm cameras have a high rate of success with capturing license plate information and freeing bus drivers to focus on student safety, instead of writing down plate numbers. But effective enforcement of stop-arm violations also requires follow-through from law enforcement.

  • Student bus safety awareness: All students should understand how to safely enter and exit the “danger zone” around a school bus. Families can work with schools to ensure that students understand where bus drivers have blind spots, why they must wait a safe distance from the road, and why they should wait for the bus to completely stop before approaching.
  • Organize carpools and/or walking school buses: Parents and school leaders can work together to make drop-off and pick-up lines less congested and safer by reducing the number of vehicles in the line through carpooling and walking school buses.
  • Support and enforce safe driving near schools: Lowering the speed of vehicles and reducing distracted driving near schools can help reduce the risk of serious injury to students. Local governments, school leaders and families, should work together to ensure safe driving in school zones through a combination of educational programming, lower speed limits, traffic calming measures in school zones, and enforcement efforts like stop-arm cameras.
  • School bus seat belts: State and local governments should work to provide funding to help schools equip their buses with three-point seat belts. [These] can supplement the safety benefits of school bus compartmentalization by providing additional student protection in both common accidents like head-on collisions, and uncommon accident types, such as rollovers.

STUDY 3

There are several impact reduction strategies districts can consider, with a range of cost and effectiveness implications:

  • Idling time reduction
  • Diesel retrofits
  • Propane and CNG buses
  • Electric buses
  • Walking and biking

School buses operating at full capacity can carry as many children as about 36 cars. This means that school buses can transport students more efficiently than cars, which could have a relative environmental advantage.

Unfortunately, there is little publicly available data on the average operating capacity of school buses. The size of the environmental benefit associated with using school buses rather than cars also depends on a number of other factors, like the:

  • Efficiency of the bus route
  • Extent to which students carpool or share vehicles
  • What share of vehicle travel is actually used for school transportation

Shifting students from smaller vehicles to larger, more efficient school buses is likely to reduce the overall environmental effects of school transportation systems, especially if those buses are equipped with environmental improvements.

Diesel retrofits are a relatively low-cost strategy to reduce the environmental effects of existing school buses. For example, studies in Washington state have found that retrofits reduced pollution, reduced the number of doctor visits for asthma and pneumonia, and had positive effects on students’ health. In addition, an analysis of more than 2,500 retrofits in Georgia found that students riding retrofitted buses experienced improved English and math test scores.

Because of these benefits, retrofits can also be cost-efficient. For example, the Georgia study also found that the benefits of retrofits far outweighed the costs. The average retrofit only costs about $8,000 per bus, suggesting that diesel engine retrofits can be at least three times more cost-effective than class-size reductions for improving test scores.

Diesel retrofit options are relatively affordable, but prices and effectiveness vary considerably. For example, diesel oxidation catalysts, which reduce the emissions resulting from diesel exhaust, can be installed for as little as $600. These devices can reduce particulate matter by 20 to 40 percent, and carbon monoxide by 10 to 60 percent.

Meanwhile, diesel particulate filters, which also limit the impact of exhaust, can cost up to $15,000. They also cut substantially more emissions, reducing particulate matter by 85 to 90 percent and carbon monoxide by 70 to 90 percent.

Propane and CNG school buses do not significantly improve air quality compared to newer models of diesel buses, and actually emit some forms of pollution at higher levels. This limits the potential environmental benefit of propane and CNG options, unless they are being used to replace older diesel buses.

  • The primary benefit of propane and CNG school buses is fuel and maintenance cost savings. These buses can save districts thousands of dollars in maintenance per bus and reduce facility costs. This is because:
  • The price of propane and CNG is lower and more stable than diesel.
  • Propane and CNG buses require less maintenance, and do not require additional
    treatment to meet federal vehicle emissions standards, unlike many diesel buses.
  • Propane and CNG buses start more easily in cold weather and do not need to be parked in heated facilities overnight in cold climates.

Case studies have shown that districts using propane and CNG buses experience substantial savings—enough to offset the initial additional cost of new buses. For example, a study by the U.S. Department of Energy tracked 110 propane buses in five school districts, all of which replaced diesel buses. All five districts experienced savings—between $400 and $3,000 per bus per year—enough to offset the incremental costs of the buses and related infrastructure over a period of three to eight years.

Propane and CNG buses do not have substantial environmental benefits over newer diesel buses and may have some environmental drawbacks. Propane and CNG buses are more expensive than their diesel counterparts. Propane school buses cost about $98,000, 9 percent more than diesel buses. CNG buses cost approximately $120,000, about 33 percent more than diesel buses.

These types of buses may also require infrastructure investments—primarily fueling stations—as well as additional training for maintenance staff. Case studies from the Department of Energy estimate that installing a propane fueling station costs between $55,000 and $250,000, depending on the station’s size and equipment.

However, suppliers and manufacturers regularly provide assistance to lower these costs, like paying some or all of the costs of installing onsite fuel stations or providing specific maintenance training.

In addition, many public fueling and charging stations for alternative fuels already exist. According to the Department of Energy, as of April 2019, there are nearly 40,000 public alternative fuel stations in the United States, including stations for biodiesel, CNG, electric, ethanol, hydrogen and propane.

Of those, more than 3,000 are propane stations and nearly 1,000 are CNG stations. There are currently public propane stations in all 50 states and public CNG stations in 45 states.

Despite the potential cost savings of propane and CNG school buses, they are limited in their ability to reduce the environmental impact of school transportation. Districts that want to invest their limited transportation resources in the most environmentally beneficial and cost-effective ways possible should consider other options.

In all-electric vehicles, batteries serve as the primary fuel source, while hybrid electric vehicles use electricity along with other fuels to improve overall efficiency. Electric school buses are far less common than propane and CNG options, in part because they have only been commercially available since 2015.

The public transportation sector has been much faster to adopt these options: Though electric options accounted for less than 1 percent of school bus sales in 2017, more than 17 percent of transit buses nationwide are fully or hybrid electric vehicles, and these vehicles have been used in public transit fleets for more than a decade.

To date, most electric school buses have been deployed in California, Massachusetts, Minnesota and New York. Because electric buses offer greater environmental and long-term cost-saving benefits than other types of buses, they are likely to become more popular in the future.

The emissions-reduction benefit of electric vehicles is tempered by the emissions released in the production of the electricity used to power them. As energy production continues to become cleaner in the future, the net reduction in emissions tied to transitioning to electric vehicles is likely to improve.

Electricity is also less expensive and has more stable prices than any other vehicle fuel. Electric school buses require less maintenance than those powered by diesel, propane, or CNG.

However, the potential benefits of electric school buses’ vehicle-to-grid and vehicle-to- building capabilities are still untested.

Researchers from the University of Delaware have estimated that using an electric school bus with vehicle-to-grid capabilities instead of a diesel bus could save a district $6,000 per seat—or roughly $230,000 per bus—over a 14-year lifespan. Evidence from the public transit sector has also shown that electric transit buses can have a lower total lifecycle cost than options powered by other fuels.

There are high up-front costs associated with transitioning to electric buses, as they
are more than twice the price of diesel, propane and CNG buses. An electric school bus typically costs about $200,000 more than its diesel counterpart. This means that all districts currently using electric buses [have to] rely on grants and subsidies to fund initial purchases.

The price of electric school bus batteries is a large contributor to the cost of these buses, but recent data shows that electric vehicle batteries are continuing to drop in price, due to technological advancements and the expanded use of electric power in multiple sectors.

Based on this progress, some experts estimate that electric vehicles could actually be cheaper than their combustion-engine equivalents as soon as 2022.

Districts also need to install their own charging stations for electric buses. There are more than 21,000 public electric charging stations across all 50 states, but electric school buses typically use more powerful, more expensive chargers—up to $50,000 each—than smaller electric vehicles.

Using these chargers requires more planning and coordination with local utility companies. School districts need to closely manage charging plans to maximize the energy and cost savings of electrification. This means that onsite charging stations are a necessity for implementing and operating electric school bus fleets.

In the public transit sector, some cities have also experienced challenges adopting electric school buses, including limited battery ranges due to factors like extreme temperatures and high elevation.

Across several of these challenges, utility companies can be a valuable partner to school districts hoping to successfully shift to electric school buses. However, utility companies may have limited interest in co-sponsoring school bus electrification until deployments of electric school buses reach a certain scale. Meaning, pursuing electrification may not currently be a realistic option for smaller districts.

Starting in 2017, Twin Rivers Unified School District, located north of Sacramento, California, was the first school district in the United States to deploy electric school buses and currently has the largest electric school bus fleet of any district in the country. The district transports nearly 5,000 students, 87 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, to more than 50 schools each day, using a fleet of 127 buses. Of those, 25 are electric and 37 run on CNG, while the remainder are powered by diesel.

The electric school buses are part of a pilot program involving multiple organizations, including Twin Rivers, the California Air and Resources Board, and the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District. A $7.5 million California Climate Investment grant, using proceeds from the state’s carbon cap-and-trade program, covered a substantial portion of the cost of the buses and electric charging infrastructure.

This infrastructure included a new electric charging station, for which the local utility company contributed nearly $100,000. A local carbon reduction fund and other sources provided additional funding.

Although up-front costs are currently high, Tim Shannon, Twin Rivers’ transportation director, believes that the price point of electric school buses will come down in the future. “Multiple bus manufacturers want to work with and support us. There is support to create an electric school bus industry, which will reduce the cost of the vehicles.”

So far, the pilot has reduced Twin Rivers’ fuel and maintenance costs considerably. Diesel fuel costs the district 82-86 cents per mile, [while] electric costs 15-17 cents per mile. Over a two-month period last year, data on Twin Rivers’ electric buses reported that their fuel costs were more than 80 percent lower than diesel buses of equivalent size.

Because electric buses have fewer moving parts requiring regular maintenance, Shannon estimates that the electric buses’ maintenance costs are also 60-80 percent less than his other buses. “Once a larger share of our fleet is electric, I could see us halving the fuel budget,” Shannon says. “And once we are all-electric, we wouldn’t need much of anything for fuel. Those savings could be put back into the classroom.”