Come fall, the school buses in Fulton County may appear to be the same on the outside, but it is the inside that brings the change.
Estimated for a fall rollout are 90 new buses that are propane fueled and equipped with 3-point seatbelts.
Last month, Fulton County School System approved a contract with new propane fuel provider for both sides of the county, according to Deputy Superintendent Patrick Burke.
Burke attributed this contract to the purchase proposal at the Jan. 19 meeting.
Propane-fueled vehicles, Burke noted produces lower emissions and are less costly to maintain.
“These alternative fuel vehicles’ mechanical systems are much less complicated, more combustion engine and designed to burn clean,” Burke said.
There is an incremental cost of a propane vehicle above a diesel vehicle.
“We’ve been able to leverage a state contract and negotiate hard to bring price of propane vehicle below the listed state contract price,” said Burke.
According to Transportation Executive Director Sam R. Ham, the county also received a price concession and a grant from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to help pay for the incremental cost.
“We delayed final purchase under current capital plan until the end when we had a better idea of where we are on revenue,” Burke said.
Ham added that cost of maintenance on propane fuel engines is less than the current diesel fuel buses.
An oil change on a diesel bus, for example, requires anywhere from 20 to 30 quarts of oil. Propane engines require about 7 quarts.
Filters are less expensive on propane vehicles than diesel vehicles.
School Board member Katie Reeves inquired if this is a scheduled bus replacement, to which Burke affirmed.
The bus purchase is slated to be the last on the current capital plan, but the first having 3-point seatbelts.
“Everyone has been talking about wanting seatbelts on buses. All 90 buses will have seatbelts,” said Board President Linda Bryant.
“Yes, as we are replacing our vehicles we will go through the process of adapting that,” Burke said.
Bryant also requested explanation of why “it is not cost effective to retrofit current buses with seatbelts.”
“Prior to 2010, seats were not engineered for the idea to put in a restraint. The cost of retrofit starts to approach the value of the older buses,” explained Burke, who added that retrofitting will occur as it applicable.
Board Member Linda McCain requested a follow-up in the future of how it is working with the seatbelts and unintended complications.
“[We want to] be aware of hiccups as they occur. I’m estimating it taking a year or so to show what the seat belts do or don’t do for the students, so I would be curious to hear that,” McCain said.
“The buses have to be built and manufactured to our specifications,” said Ham.
According to Ham, manufacturers refer to the belts as a “HSM-3-point seat belt,” that will go across the lap and shoulder.
Ham noted that the seats will still serve as a safety feature, but also be designed differently to provide more leg room for the students.
“Seats in the new buses will incorporate a design that bends inward,” he said.
One consideration given to manufacturing is the concern regarding loss of capacity or passenger accommodation.
The new C-class buses, manufactured by Bluebird, will maintain up to 72 capacity seating, so it won’t affect routing.
Each bus has 24 seats, which can accommodate three elementary sized school students and two middle and high school students.
“Fulton County Schools will be the first in the state of Georgia to have this type of seat,” according to Ham.
“It is more of a standard for 2018 model, but federal standards are allowing us to pilot the seat,” Ham said.
He estimated planning being in the works to implement new buses for about 2 years now.
Hamm anticipates the arrival of the buses between April and May, but before buses can travel those routes, training will be conducted, so drivers “know what they are getting and know what they are driving.”
He is also aiming to conduct student training as well.
“The transportation industry is big on compartmentalization and school buses is safest mode of transportation out there, I fully support that,” he said.
These buses are scheduled to go into service for the 2017-2018 school year.