The S.C. Department of Education has gifted Berkeley County School District and Dorchester District 2 with 26 brand-new, lower-emission school buses to replace a portion of their aging, diesel-fueled fleet.
Unveiled Thursday in a ceremony at Blanchard Machinery Co. in Summerville, the districts' new Blue Bird Vision buses run on liquid propane "autogas," a domestically produced, environmentally friendly alternative fuel derived from natural gas and petroleum refining.
According to ROUSH CleanTech, which manufactures Blue Bird's autogas system technology, propane-powered vehicles emit fewer greenhouse gases than those fueled by diesel or gasoline.
Propane also burns cleaner, thereby reducing the costs of engine maintenance and repair. On average, according to ROUSH, propane autogas is 30 to 40 percent cheaper than gasoline and half as expensive as diesel.
The 26 new buses come equipped with air conditioning and GPS technology. Each were purchased at a cost of $91,325 using funds allocated by the Legislature. Dorchester District 2 will get 10 of the new buses and the rest will go to Berkeley County. They will start ferrying students to and from school Friday.
"Don't get ideas about taking those with you," joked BCSD Superintendent Brenda Blackburn in her prepared remarks.
Unlike other states, South Carolina operates and maintains its own fleet of 5,582 school buses that travel roughly 82.2 million miles per year. Half of these buses, according to the state Department of Education, are more than 15 years old — with the oldest purchased in 1988 — and their average odometer reading exceeds 236,000 miles.
In 2007, the Legislature passed a law requiring the State Board of Education to replace of approximately one-fifteenth of the school bus fleet each year with new models. But only twice have lawmakers cobbled together enough money to meet their own mandate, leaving South Carolina with one of the oldest fleets in the nation.
Last month, State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman publicly implored lawmakers to replace more than 1,000 decades-old school buses in the state-owned fleet to "ensure students have safe and reliable transportation for years to come."
In Berkeley County, the average age of the district's buses is 16 years, according to Wes Fleming, BCSD's director of transportation. The new buses, he said, will replace a little less than 10 percent of the district's fleet.
Although the new Blue Bird Vision buses will primarily serve the Stratford High School feeder area, Fleming said the purchase allows BCSD to ditch its less reliable 1995 models and deploy newer, better buses across the district.
"This is great. This will do a lot for us," he said. "The whole county will benefit from these buses."