LEXINGTON — Some of the state's three-decade-old school buses will come off the road after South Carolina's education agency receives nearly $8 million from a huge automaker settlement.
The award, announced Tuesday, will buy 78 school buses that run on propane, replacing the worst polluters in the state's fleet that has been shuttling children to and from school since 1988.
"I feel like it's Christmas Day today," said state schools chief Molly Spearman, noting 350,000 students ride one of the fleet's 5,690 buses daily.
The award further helps South Carolina climb out of its long-held status as having one of the nation's worst school bus fleets, following nearly 2,200 buses bought over the past four years.
But while the $7.9 million will scrap many of the state's oldest buses, hundreds dating to the end of President Ronald Reagan's tenure will still be in operation.
"This is a happy day and we’ve been working to make sure our fleet is not only safe and energy-efficient but safe for our environment — a good role model for our students to see," Spearman said.
Spearman, state Insurance Director Ray Farmer and his boss, Gov. Henry McMaster, jointly made the announcement while standing in front of buses at White Knoll High School in fast-growing Lexington District 1, which has 25 of the 1988 buses.
South Carolina's K-12 agency is the biggest winner of $9.3 million being doled out in the first round of the state's share of a $14.7 billion settlement Volkswagen reached with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2016.
"We had our fingers crossed and hoped that’s how it would work out, and it did," said McMaster, who supported using the money for school buses.
The state Department of Insurance, which McMaster put in charge of the settlement money in 2017, received eight first-round applications that sought $29.4 million.
Public transportation in the Lowcountry and Upstate also benefit this round.
A $1.4 million grant will provide two electric buses and charging stations for Charleston's regional transit system — fulfilling part of an $8.3 million request. The Charleston County sales taxes is supplying an additional $347,000 for those buses, made by Proterra in Greenville.
The city of Anderson is receiving $73,600 for a bus fueled by compressed natural gas, with the rest of its $490,000 cost funded by a federal grant.
"All use alternative, clean fuel sources," Farmer said of the buses expected to keep 53,261 pounds of nitrogen oxide and 388 tons of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere over the next 15 years, compared with the diesel-fueled polluters they're replacing. "They’ll reduce emissions and provide clean, safe transportation to our students and citizens that rely on public transportation."
His agency will decide winners of the settlement's remaining $24 million over the next couple of years. Spearman will seek that money, too.
The K-12 fleet
When classes start next month, there will be 517 buses statewide that date to 1988 or 1990.
Of the 78 replacements expected to arrive by the second semester, 22 will go to Lexington 1, 20 to Horry County, and 18 each to Beaufort County and Richland 2 in suburban Columbia.
"These buses will be going to spots where we have" propane fueling stations, Spearman said. "Other buses will be moved around to equalize as much as we can with the newer buses."
In 2007, legislators passed a law calling for the entire fleet to be replaced every 15 years, then promptly ignored it once the Great Recession hit. They began funding buses again several years ago. Buses replaced since 2014 include all of the rear-engine buses bought in 1995 and 1996 that were prone to catching fire.
"One-third of our fleet now is where it should be, and we continue to improve," Spearman said.
Legislators designated an additional $19 million from this year's lottery profits to school buses. In 2017, McMaster vetoed spending more than $20 million in lottery surpluses on buses, arguing that money should go only to college scholarships, but the Legislature overrode him.
Volkswagen's settlement was meant to offset environmental damage from its diesel cars that didn’t meet federal standards. The German carmaker was accused of fitting roughly 500,000 vehicles in the U.S. with software intended to cheat on emissions tests.