Tacoma schools roll out new propane buses

TACOMA, Wash. - The first bus ride of the school year was quieter for dozens of students in Tacoma on Wednesday morning, as the district rolled out nine new propane-fueled buses. For drivers like Susanna Kelley, it's a noticeable change.

"This is the quietest bus I've ever been on," Kelley said on a recent test drive through Tacoma.

Last year, the school board asked district transportation officials to look into upgrading parts of the fleet with alternative-fuel buses. District spokesperson Dan Voelpel says the new buses cost about $12,000 more than a traditional diesel-fueled bus.

"But over the course of about five years, they recoup that," Voelpel says. "After that, it's all gravy. It's a lot cheaper."

Voelpel says the average bus will last about 13 years.

Along with cost savings, Voelpel says the buses are better for the environment, as propane burns cleaner than traditional fossil fuels. Experts also say propane tanks are safer in a crash.

"There was a police department in Mississippi that did a test with them," says Ed Linge of Harlow Bus Sales. "They fired a .357 and M16 at the tank. They had a puncture, but no ignition."

Still, filling the tanks could be problematic to start. Drivers have to be trained, and Voelpel says there is currently only one refueling location in the area. The district is hoping to have a second refueling location operating on its bus lot in October.

For Kelley, the safety of her passengers is her first priority. She says the decreased engine noise will help her hear more of what's happening behind her.

"It's very important," Kelley says. "Sometimes kids can get into fights on the bus... [now] you can really hear what's going on."

Tacoma Schools says the nine new propane buses will be used mostly on longer routes, which include students with special education needs in neighboring communities. A spokesperson for Seattle schools says the district also uses propane buses on about 20 percent of its fleet, mostly on routes that make door-to-door stops.

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