Pulaski County schools set for switch to propane buses

A Pulaski County Special School District bus driver parks at a bus yard in Sweet Home in this February 2004 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo)

The Pulaski County Special School District is taking 20 of its older diesel-fuel burning school buses off the road, destroying them and replacing them with almost $2 million in school buses fueled by propane.

The acquisition of the propane buses is the result of:

• A memorandum of understanding between the 12,000-student school system and the Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment's Division of Environmental Quality.

• Beneficiary disbursements from the Volkswagen Settlement Environmental Mitigation Trust.

The district's School Board approved an agreement on the bus deal with the state last week.

The state Division of Environmental Quality will reimburse the school district up to $1,960,000, or $98,000 per bus, to purchase up to 20 propane buses and scrap 20 diesel buses.

Eligible expenses include the purchase price of the new buses, delivery costs of the new buses, the cost to scrap and dispose of the buses being replaced and taxes, if applicable.

Once the district has the propane school buses, it will have no more than 30 days to scrap the diesel buses.

That is to be done by cutting a 3-inch hole or larger in the engine block of each engine and cutting the frame rails of each vehicle completely in half.

Before-and-after photographs of the decommissioned buses will be required as part of the agreement.

Charles Blake, the Pulaski County Special district's director of transportation, was delighted last week with the news that the district had been selected for the $2 million bus plan, saying the grant will provide the district with 20 new buses that it would otherwise have to purchase with district funds.

Each of the buses to be destroyed is 14 years old or older and has exceeded its life expectancy, he said.

"This is a dream we have been working for the past four years," Blake told the district's School Board last week.

The district already has some experience with the propane buses and supporting equipment because it had received similar but smaller grants in 2019 and 2021. Each of those grants enabled the district to purchase two propane-fueled buses for a total of four, starting the district's clean-air program, Blake said.

Blake said the district has the fueling infrastructure it needs for the propane buses in the south part of the district, but 10 of the new buses will go to the northwest section of the district, five more will go to the Maumelle area and five to the Sherwood area.

"We're going to put in infrastructure, but it isn't costly," Blake said.

The district will have the old buses scrapped and receive about $1,500 for each, which will be available for district use.

School Board member Eli Keller praised Blake and the district's transportation department. He called the new bus plan "an incredible feat because you stretch these buses to their limits and then you stretch them past that, and you do so with never a gripe that gets back to me.

"Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I am extremely impressed," Keller said.

Stephen Delaney, the board's president, said he didn't believe Blake when he first said the district might be able to acquire the large number of new buses.

"I was wrong," Delaney said to laughter. "It's awesome," he said about the grant.

The money for the grants comes from a settlement of charges that the producers of the Volkswagen family of cars violated the federal Clean Air Act by selling approximately 590,000 model year 2009 to 2016 diesel motor vehicles that were equipped with "defeat devices." Those devices were in the form of computer software designed to cheat on federal emissions tests. The major excess pollutant at issue was oxide of nitrogen, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.