City schools seek to make buses cleaner

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The Pittsburgh Public Schools is poised to join a growing number of districts nationwide working to purify the air inside and outside of school buses.

The school board will vote Wednesday on a new round of contracts with 19 carriers that provide yellow buses or other vehicles to transport students. The five-year agreements would take effect next school year.

By the end of 2013-14 year, carriers would have to have diesel particulate filters on at least 85 percent of their diesel-powered vehicles and closed crankcase ventilation systems on all diesel-powered vehicles. The filters are estimated to cut diesel emissions by as much as 90 percent, while the ventilation systems help to purify air inside the cabin.

Carriers could meet the requirements by retrofitting older vehicles or by buying new vehicles equipped with clean-air technology.

Grants are available to help pay initial retrofitting costs, which may run as much as $11,000. But there are also continuing maintenance costs.

District spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said the new contracts may include incentives for meeting the clear-air requirements sooner than the end of 2013-14. For example, she said the district could assign extra trips to carriers with the highest percentages of retrofitted vehicles.

The Group Against Smog and Pollution and Clean Water Action had lobbied for the changes, saying diesel fumes contribute to respiratory ailments and other health issues.

Tom Hoffman, Western Pennsylvania director for Clean Water Action, and Rachel Filippini, executive director of GASP, said the city school district's proposed requirements satisfy their demands. Ms. Filippini called them "quite strong."

Districts around the nation are retrofitting buses to be more environmentally friendly.

But not all require the diesel particulate filters, one of the cleaner but more costly clean-air options, said Robin Leeds, industry specialist for the National School Transportation Association, an industry group in Alexandria, Va.

Ms. Leeds said bus companies "are very happy to do whatever we can to improve the environment and the health of the students we're transporting."

But she said carriers face not only the costs of retrofitting vehicles but maintaining and replacing clean-air equipment. That expense, she said, would be passed on to customers.

"When contracts come up for renewal, it would be figured in, along with higher fuel prices and anything else that's been going up," she said.

Ms. Leeds said the Environmental Protection Agency began offering grants for retrofitting in 2003 and has expanded funding because of the federal economic stimulus program.

Besides any federal help that may be available, Pittsburgh's carriers may seek grants of about $7,000 per vehicle from the Healthy School Bus Fund, established about two years ago with a $500,000 grant from The Heinz Endowments and a $100,000 grant from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

A big chunk of that money already is taken. W.L. Roenigk Inc. plans to retrofit 50 buses by the end of the school year.

Another option is Allegheny County's Clean Air Fund, which allocated $500,000 for school bus retrofits. Eleven school districts in the county, including the Pittsburgh Public Schools, can get grants covering 100 percent of the costs of retrofitting diesel school buses with clean-air technology. Other school districts in the county are eligible for grants covering 75 percent of retrofitting costs.

"Unfortunately, we haven't had many takers," said Allegheny County Health Department spokesman Guillermo Cole.

He said $485,000 remains in the fund, established about three years ago. He said only one district, Deer Lakes, has availed itself of grants and blamed the low participation on districts' reluctance to shoulder continuing costs of maintaining bus retrofits.

Ms. Pugh said the district's transportation costs are expected to increase about 2.5 percent, or $700,000, for the 2009-10 school year. She said the higher costs reflect a number of items, including tougher insurance requirements and beefed-up driver qualifications.


Correction/Clarification: (Published May 27, 2009) Through the Allegheny County Clear Air Fund, 11 school districts in the county, including the Pittsburgh Public Schools, can get grants covering 100 percent of the costs of retrofitting diesel school buses with clean-air technology. Other school districts in the county are eligible for grants covering 75 percent of retrofitting costs. This story as originally published May 25, 2009 said 75 percent reimbursement was the maximum available to any district through the county program.

Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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