Kansas City’s Green Machines
In the 14 years that George Taylor has been with Kansas City (Kan.) Public Schools as the director of transportation, he has seen his fleet of 160 buses age and tire. As maintenance costs began to increase on the 12-18-year-old buses, along with diesel fuel prices escalating, the district was in need of new buses. “Funding has been decreasing over the last five years,” says Taylor. “Maintenance expenses were going up because we had buses that were 12 to 18 years old.”
Prior to 2011, Kansas City’s fleet was powered by diesel fuel, which services 10,000 students in the roughly 20,000-student urban district.
Roughly three years ago, Taylor began exploring grant options to purchase newer and greener buses that use alternative fuels for his district through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Repeatedly, his applications were turned down.
In 2010, Taylor learned of the Kansas City Regional Clean Cities Coalition, an initiative under the U.S. Department of Energy’s leading Clean Cities program, which supports alternative fuels for transportation fleets. Taylor joined 16 other citywide partners that received a $15 million grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) in 2010, $4 million of which was dedicated to the Kansas City schools.
In August 2010, Taylor was able to order 47 Thomas Built buses, roughly one-third of the district’s fleet. The buses were $150,000 —$50,000 more than diesel buses, although the difference in price was covered by the grant.
“We were at a point where we needed to replace a large number of buses in our fleet,” says David Smith, chief of staff for KCPS. “This allowed us to purchase buses and save us a good deal of money in terms of fuel and maintenance. It’s something that we’re quite proud of. We’re a poor district in the poorest county in the state. Often, people don’t expect innovation to come from us.” KCPS has a free and reduced-price lunch rate of 87 percent.
Buses began arriving in November 2010, and the district began building new infrastructure on site to fuel the new buses, which run on natural gas. By March 2011, most of the buses had arrived, although they remained somewhat inactive until the start of the 2011-2012 school year until the drivers could be retrained on the new vehicles.
Kansas City’s new vehicles from Thomas Built are HDX rear engine CNG buses. For those who don’t speak truck talk, these are “transit style” buses that have a flat face, as opposed to a traditional hood, and a rear engine, which reduces the overall noise level for the bus driver.
“[The quiet noise] increases the ability to hear and provides a better disciplinary environment,” says Taylor. Taylor calls his shiny new vehicles his “bling” buses. As for the refueling benefits, 35 time-fill dispensers were built at the district’s bus lot with dual hoses, allowing each station to fuel two buses at a time. Taylor and his team worked on the time-fill dispenser construction until the last buses arrived in March 2011. The natural gas, which Taylor says is what heats Kansas City’s homes, is brought in through a gas line and compressors and is then set on a slow-fill system. It has nearly zero emissions.
“The drivers come on the lot in the afternoons when their route is completed,” says Taylor. “They hook up the hoses, and the compressors come on at about 5 p.m. and run until 5 a.m. They are then disconnected before the drivers begin their next route.”
All on Board
Despite having to be retrained to drive the new vehicles due to new air brakes, Taylor says his crew has been more than optimistic about the new fleet. While it may take some time before he sees the true return on investment on the district’s 47-fleet purchase, his savings, of $350 million just this year from diesel fuel, will be accelerated as a result of the grant. In addition to the buses, the grant money went toward new infrastructure and ancillary pieces for maintenance. Savings aside, Taylor and other officials are thrilled to be doing their part to provide cleaner air.
“When we have our diesel buses, they spend a lot of time idling and pouring pollution into the air,” says Smith.
“The emissions are almost nil compared to diesel buses,” says Taylor. “We’re delivering savings and creating a healthier environment by doing it.”