School districts tense over new diesel rules

For hundreds of California school districts already facing profound budget problems, the proposed diesel-soot regulations from the Air Resources Board couldn’t come at a worse time: The ARB is pondering a new rule that would require schools to buy new buses—they average about $150,000 each–or retrofit older ones at $20,000 or more per vehicle.

The strapped districts also are crying foul over what they see as a betrayal by the ARB. The original diesel rule excluded school buses; the latest version of the rule includes them. The ARB, conducting hearings around the state, is expected to make a final decision in October in Fresno.

“We’re in a crisis,” said Stephen Rhoads of the School Transportation Coalition, which represents school districts. “The rule says if you can’t put diesel traps on the buses, you’ve got to replace them. It says replace the engine, but you can’t replace the engine on these old buses, you’ve got to replace the bus.”

Ralph Meza, transportation director for the Fresno Unified School District, where 9,500 students take the bus each day, said the new rule would carry a $6 million local price tag to retrofit buses or buy new ones. Of the district’s 96 buses, 49 are pre-1976—which means all of them would have to be replaced.

“This is a big impact on the school districts. To be honest, I don’t know some of us are going to be able to do it,” he said. “I’m all for cleaning the air. I’ve got kids in school, too. I think it’s a great thing. But what is the impact going to be?”

Rhoads estimates that the proposed rule would cost school districts statewide some $500 million to buy or retrofit some 3,000 buses—the 2,300 buses that predate 1986, and some 700 buses that are 1994 or older. Rules requiring seat belts and lap restraints, which cut seating in a 78-seat bus to 65, will require more buses on the road to move the same number of students.
The potential impact on school districts is one piece of the proposed regulation, which the ARB says would affect about 420,000 on-road diesel vehicles registered in California, plus an unknown number of out-of-state diesel vehicles, mostly trucks, that ply California’s highways. The rule is part of the plan the ARB approved eight years ago to cut diesel soot by 85 percent below 2000 levels by 2020. Using that plan as a guide, the ARB has already approved regulations for off-road diesel equipment, harbor craft, docked ships and stationery farm equipment, among others, and more regulations are pending.

The economic impact of such rules is vast, but health considerations must come first, said ARB spokeswoman Karen Cesar. Diesel soot causes about 2,900 premature deaths a year in California, about 3,600 hospital admissions and some 240,000 asthma attacks and respiratory symptoms according to the ARB.

“We consider the economic impact, in fact we are required to do so by law, but our primary mission is protecting the health of the public. We cannot disregard the health of the public—that is our number one concern,” Cesar said.

School districts also note that the state, with some 1,200 school districts, trails the nation in the percentage of students who use school buses and that increased use of school buses would ease congestion and improve air quality. The state meanwhile pays for less than 50 percent of the cost of local district transportation, even though the state requires that the service be available.

About 16 percent of California students regularly ride the school bus to or from school, less than a third of the national average of 54 percent. “In 1985, 23 percent of our children rode school buses. In 20 years, we’ve had a 40 percent decline in the percentage of children that ride buses.”

Surrounding the proposed on-road diesel regulation is a cloud of conflicting numbers, making it difficult to accurately assess the regulation’s economic impact.

The staff of the ARB, which has revised its figures, says the rule, which would apply to shuttle buses and vehicles greater than 14,000 pounds, would have affect some 420,000 on-road vehicles registered in California, plus an unknown-number of out-of-state trucks.

The trucking industry says those numbers are understated. The California Trucking Association believes at least 500,000 California-registered vehicles would be directly affected, plus 1.5 million trucks registered outside the state that regularly cross into California.

“They have consistently estimated that the impact of the regulation will be in the $3 billion to $5 billion range,” said Julie Sauls, vice president of the California Trucking Association. Sauls noted that the ARB had revised its estimates of the number of vehicles affected by the proposed rule, but its estimate of the dollar impact has remained unchanged.

“The question I would raise is how can the inventory number change, yet the cost never fluctuates. We are still waiting to see that data,” she said.

For the school buses, retrofitting can be especially difficult, said Mike Rey, of the California Association of School Transportation Officials.

“Public transit buses typically are on the road for 12 to 15 years max, and they get federal, state and local matching funds.  School buses in California typically average more than 30 years. Some districts have buses older than 35 years, even 40 years.”
The age is important because the oldest buses cannot be retrofitted—they have to be replaced. But even with matching funds—there is money available from voter-approved Proposition 1B and other sources—it is difficult for districts to come up with the cash.

But for the ARB, the over-riding concern is air quality and public health.

“California does have the poorest air quality in the nation, and even though the air is much better than it was decades ago we have a long way to go. This regulation is a living, breathing document and can be changed. We’re listening,” Cesar said.

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